“Well bugger me – now I’m a judge I find I have the confidence to declare that I’m a Maori too”

A curious thing happens to lawyers – apparently – as they progress up the pecking order to become judges.

They discover they are indigenous persons – or become confident about declaring they are indigenous persons.

Alf learned of this phenomenon while listening to some members of the Maori legal profession questioning why the Government’s data on the number of judges who identify as tāngata whenua is out-of-date.

It should be a matter of no concern, in a land with one rule for all, if a judge can identify as tangata whenua, or as Chinese, or as Hottentot… or as anything.

The law is the law is the law and a judge is a judge is a judge.

If we passed the appropriate exams and followed the right career path, we could all be judges. And we should be colour-blind judges.

Trouble is, indigenous persons in this country are obsessed with counting how many of them are involved in any form of activity, which includes the number of indigenous persons engaged in the judging caper.

Radio New Zealand seems keen to get them the numbers.

They found justice officials weren’t as obsessed the indigenous persons are and don’t keep tabs – at least, not too closely – on the ethnic makeup of the judiciary.

Officials first told Radio New Zealand there were 28 judges of Māori descent, but later conceded the tally was wrong.

Radio New Zealand originally reported there were no tāngata whenua judges in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Environment Court or Employment Court.

In emails, officials then explained there was one in the Court of Appeal – Justice Cooper.

In addition, after more emails and stories, Te Manu Korihi was told to change its figures as there were in fact five High Court judges who identified as being Māori rather than three.

There are approximately 243 judges in Aotearoa and the new figures show 31 of those are of Māori descent.

Well, now we know.

So what?

For most of us, so nothing.

But Radio NZ’s hacks were able to winkle out some indigenous persons whose perturbation is extreme.

Māori lawyer Tai Ahu said it reflected badly and the Government needed to be more vigilant.

He is urging it to adopt a new way of establishing the number of Māori judges.

“It demonstrates a lack of monitoring so there needs to be systems in place that monitor the number of Māori judges.

“It sends a signal that it’s not a particularly important issue for the Ministry of Justice and for the judiciary and I think it’s wrong to think of it in those terms.”

So – he thinks it’s wrong.

But if indeed the lack of monitoring sends a signal that it’s not a particular important issue for officials – then the officials have got at least this matter right in their priorities.

Tai Ahu hadn’t finished, of course.

He said it was vital to know exactly how many there were as an increased understanding of tikanga, or Māori culture and tradition, is becoming a necessity in addressing issues that arise in the courtroom.

“There does need to be increased monitoring and vigilance around not just recording numbers.

“Definitely if there are issues in relation to the numbers and if the numbers are not being accurately counted then there are bound to be issues in relation to whether Māori judges are bringing critical Māori thinking to the bench, which is at the end of the day what we’re after.

“If there’s no system in place to monitor even the number of judges who associate with being Māori then there’s some deep issues here.”

So we will have to hire more monitors and we can be camned sure Tai Ahu and his ilk will then be demanding more indigenous persons be given jobs in the monitoring department.

But the story gets more fascinating.

Let’s bring in Māmari Stephens, a senior lecturer in the School of Law at the Victoria University of Wellington. She said personal information should be updated every two years because some judges only start to recognise and become confident to identify as Māori as their career progresses.

“At this level, if we don’t even know how many judges we have that are Māori, there’s a fairly good bit of evidence there that we’re not actually developing the sense that being a Māori judge is a normal thing or a legal career even is a normal thing.

“What is shows is a lack of systemization of the gathering of that information. I wonder if they’ve ever been asked that question [of how many Māori judges there are] because of the fact that they’ve had to go back and change the information they’ve provided suggests that they may not have been asked this too many times before.”

Alf is bound to say he finds it difficult to translate the quoted passage into simple English.

But he thinks this woman is saying we should be encouraging a system in which a judge with a bit of Maori blood pumping proudly through his or her veins can stick his or hand up and declare: “I am a Maori judge.”

If it is not obvious that a judge is a Maori judge, Alf wonders what the big deal is.

If a judge has to declare he or she is a Maori judge, he is disquieted.

Does this mean all the other judges should declare themselves non-Maori judges?

Or should ethnicity be specifically declared for all to see?

Another issue: if Alf were to appear before a judge (this is improbable and the question is only being raised for hypothetical purposes) could he reject the judge who says he is a Maori judge and insist on the case being heard before an English/Scottish/Danish judge?

Hmm. Damned good idea.

Pressing the argument further, Alf should be able to insist on the case being heard before a judge with the same mix of English/Scottish/Danish blood as is pumping through his veins.

And if the right judge can’t be found – obviously, the case should be thrown out.

Yep. Our indigenous persons are on to something.

3 Responses to “Well bugger me – now I’m a judge I find I have the confidence to declare that I’m a Maori too”

  1. Barry says:

    None of them are even maoris, they are all only part-maoris – so they are all liars.

  2. What a crackup you are Alfie, old boy. Actually I didn’t say the info should be asked every two years (I’m not sure why they said I did). A lot of the judges have been on the bench a long time, and may never have been asked. So..it makes sense to ask. Not least because of the training resources that judges have access to that may be particularly relevant to Māori judges who wish to take the up, or even just those judges who work in areas with high numbers of Maori petitioners (e.g. Maori Land Court).

    I take your wishful point about the system being colourblind. And presumably value-neutral. And equally available to all. But it is not. It never has been, and wishful thinking doesn’t make it so. Law is a product of the culture of the peoples subject to that law. New Zealand law is no exception. If there were large components of the New Zealand legal system reflecting Sri Lankan or Dutch culture or legal custom I would certainly be advocating for more judges au fait with those languages and traditions. Just why do you think we have Māori land laws? Because the English law system we inherited recognises, and has always recognised custom. Not all that well, sometimes (well, lots of times) but it can, and sometimes does.

    So. New Zealand law features some components to it that do require specialist knowledge of Maori custom (for example) and there have been some truly excellent Pakeha judges in those fora. All of whom would likely recognise the efficacy of having more Maori judges in the system who are likely to be more familiar with relevant customs, protocol and language. And while we are at it, why encourage Maori judges into the system, only to lock them in to specialist areas? That would be silly, now wouldn’t it. We often expect our judges to be able to serve in other areas too.

    Specialist knowledge aside, there is a principle at work here too…Māori are to subject to the legal system, thus we also should be within the system, at all levels…students, practitioners, judges. Always provided the quality standards are met. So, just as we know ethnicity stats on students, knowing numbers of Māori judges is one way of measuring progress in ensuring the legal profession is as open to Maori practitioners as it should be to Maori claimants. It is, to be sure, a blunt instrument. And I know plenty of people who have struggled with calling themselves Maori over the years. Sometimes because they they don’t want to be perceived of as ‘different’, sometimes because they weren’t raised in that particular language or culture. That process can take years. Only dinosaurs who bleat on about blood quantum might take issue with that, but the rest of us know that ethnicity, culture and identity is complex. In the real world.

    Oh..and I absolutely agree about that last sentence of mine not being very good English. Bloody awful! Spoken language is often a lot woolier than written. Well. In my case, clearly.

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