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Community advocate driven to “ignite the fire” for Māori law graduates

19 July 2018 - By Jock Anderson

Australian-born Scottish/Māori bagpipe-playing Highland dancer Jamie-Lee Tuuta’s legal efforts opened the eyes of one High Court judge to a need to consider the cultural background of offenders.

Jamie-Lee, who leads Community Law Canterbury’s Kaupapa Māori legal team, recently prepared what is believed to be the South Island’s first pre-sentencing report to deal specifically with a Maori offender’s cultural and whanau background.

Her report, prepared under s 27 of the Sentencing Act, was on convicted murderer Jayden Shane Alexander, who killed his brother with a single knife stab during a violent scuffle in Ashburton in 2016. In June, Justice Nicholas Davidson sentenced Alexander to life imprisonment, with a minimum non-parole period of 11 years.

Name Jamie-Lee Tuuta
Born Toowoomba, Queensland.
Age 30
Entry to law Graduated BA (Psychology and Maori Indigenous Studies) and LLB from Canterbury University in 2013. Admitted in 2013.
Workplace Barrister and solicitor at Community Law Canterbury.
Speciality area Family and general law.


Section 27 allows a judge to hear anyone called by an offender to speak on the personal, family, whanau, community and cultural background of the offender, and how that background may have related to their offending.

Jamie-Lee 2

In the case of Alexander, who, from the age of 18 months spent much of his life in care, Justice Davidson said he appreciated Ms Tuuta’s report. It included references to evidence which showed that Māori who explored their culture found a sense of belonging and were less likely to re-offend.

Of Alexander, Jamie-Lee told the judge: “As much as he knows he is Māori, he doesn’t know what that means.”

Justice Davidson said Jamie’s focus on Alexander’s disconnect with his Māori culture was “extremely helpful and enlightening.” He also said it was the first time he had come across such a cultural report, saying it may apply to Pākehā and other ethnicities as well, and he knew many judges who had not come across them.

She says cultural reports are “definitely extremely underutilised” and believes the Alexander case was the first written report in the South Island. “Some agencies know more about people than they know about themselves. So I hope people use those reports for a broader view of an offender.”

Jamie-Lee, who affiliates to Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri and Ngāti Toa Rangatira, is committed to supporting women, particularly Māori law students, to graduate and practice within their local community.

“I have been supporting the kaupapa because Justice Joe Williams, of the Court of Appeal, and Khylee Quince, Associate head of school and director of Māori and Pacific Advancement at the AUT school of law, have been out there advocating for it to be used.”

Appreciating her dual identity

“I am fortunate on both sides, I appreciate both my cultures. I am heavily involved in my Scottish part and heavily involved in my Māori side.

“To me they are equally as important as each other. But if you do not have family who can you share it with and who do you learn it from. Where do you belong? Where is your sense of place?”

Jamie-Lee dancing

[Jamie-Lee dancing in South Korea. She is third from the left.]

She initially worked in-house for Ngāi Tahu before moving to Community Law in October 2016.

“One of the big drivers for me coming to Community Law was to support them establish a Māori legal team and help with their relationships with mana whenua, set up relationships with Whanau Ora and develop more of a holistic approach to their legal stuff.”

Jamie-Lee is a full-time solicitor and has two senior, paid Māori law students/law clerks. The kaupapa Māori legal team also has a whanau support worker/liaison.

“We do mainly family law, employment and Māori land, but we are generalists and cover the lot.

“Because we don’t have many Māori graduates out of Canterbury – the numbers are very low – the goal of this is to give them some paid work experience to expose them particularly to family and criminal stuff and hopefully that might ignite the fire for them to practise in those areas.

“In my view this is where whanau need us most, particularly in Christchurch because we have a limited number of Māori lawyers anyway.”

Community Law is funded by the Ministry of Justice and provides free legal advice. Community Law Canterbury’s area extends from Hurunui to Waimate and the West Coast. A team has also been supporting Kaikoura with earthquake legal matters, including insurance, since 2011.

“We’re quite a big team here with lots of outreaches.

“I represent people in court myself, which not all community law centres do, and not everyone here does. But I do, particularly with family law cases, where there was a need for our Māori whanau. There is a higher level of engagement when they have a Māori lawyer.”

Tragedy led to law study

Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, where her parents Steve and Jude were working and “enjoying a good life” – the family returned to Christchurch when Jamie-Lee was 18 months old after her grandad died. “Unfortunately, he didn’t get to meet me.”

Her older sister is a Gold Coast-based police officer. “We don’t always see eye to eye.”

With no other lawyers in her extended family, her attraction to law is a personal story.

“I didn’t start doing law, I started doing an arts degree and wanted to be a psychologist.

“When I was 20 one of my friends – a pedestrian - was killed by a boy racer tearing down the road. That was 10 years ago. Because of that I started researching some background to behaviour, found I was interested and the following year decided to do law.

“I went to St Andrew’s College from 2001 to 2005 for their pipe band. I used to play the pipes and got into the pipes through Highland dancing. I was part of the St Andrew’s pipe band and played solo as well. I loved it there.

“There are not many girls who are Māori who play the bagpipes. I play for leisure now.

“I started dancing when I was six when grandma took me along to classes. The Scottish influence is on mum’s side, from the Orkney Islands. I visited Orkney last year and stayed with grandma’s cousins for a few days, and that was great.”

A former competitive Highland dancer who had her own dancing school until she went to law school, Jamie-Lee is a qualified dance judge and undertakes various judging appointments around New Zealand.

Edinburgh Tattoo

She danced at the Edinburgh Tattoo in 2005 in a New Zealand Highland dance team – “there might have been a couple of Māori dancers” - that joined up with the official dancers.

“Not really” into sport, she has travelled widely in New Zealand, mainly with dancing and competitions, and last year packed 10 destinations into a solo five-week holiday – including Dubai, Ireland, Scotland, London, Holland, Germany, Italy, France and San Francisco.

“Akaroa is my favourite spot in New Zealand and we have kaupapa links to Onuku marae there. I also adore Northland.”

When she came home Jamie-Lee signed up as a volunteer for Child Cancer “because I wanted to do broader volunteer stuff and not just for specifically Māori organisations”.

“I’m open to anything musical but I’m quite useless naming bands.”

Preferring true stories and autobiographies, one of her favourite books – after hearing the author speak in Christchurch - is by Australian criminal and human rights lawyer, retired British army officer, professional speaker and hostage survivor, Rabia Siddique. Ms Siddique successfully sued the UK Ministry of Defence in 2008 for discrimination after it failed to acknowledge the role she played in the rescue of two captured special forces soldiers in Iraq.

“I have a pile of books I would like to read. I’m not a film person, and switch off with a bit of Netflix TV, enjoy The Good Wife and legal dramas, but I got over Suits.

Actively involved with her marae, she is significantly interested in Treaty issues. “Iwi stuff does take up your life - I can talk all night about iwi stuff with Dad.”

“You never switch off from being Māori. Every marae has a constitution, rules and legal structures.

“I think some of my work with Ngāi Tahu was pretty memorable, including a couple of arbitrations against the Crown. In my first couple of years with them I watched behaviours and being part of the process.

“Also some of the cases I have here at Community Law are memorable. We get to help a wide range of people I would not see in private practice. The types of cases are quite complex but we can put a bit more time into them and work with community organisations for more of a holistic outcome.”

Jake and Jacinda

“I drive an Audi A3 and have a 16 and a half year old grey haired Jack Russell called Jake, who I got for my 14th birthday from my cousins.

“Jacinda Ardern would be my number one dinner guest. And one of my tipuna from my Ngāti Toa links, Kahe Terau O Te Rangi - she was a Treaty signatory.  She is known as the lady who swam with her baby on her back from Kapiti to raise the alarm when Ngāti Toa were attacked by a war party from the south.

“I’d like to know what happened in her time. I would like to meet her, she interests me and not many women signed the Treaty – it was quite rare.” About five women are known to have signed the Treaty of Waitangi, according to official reports.

“And Nelson Mandela, and my family there to share the experience. I like Italian food - I enjoyed it overseas - and Prosecco wine.

“If I wasn’t being a lawyer I would definitely be out in the community, doing some sort of advocacy, or maybe politics.

“At the moment I definitely want to continue doing family law work in particular. But who knows, I have left that open.

“I would want to do something that was meaningful. I didn’t come to community law for the money. It’s for the kaupapa and supporting whanau.

“I don’t have a particular legal ambition. I didn’t even think I would be here. It’s taking one step at a time.”

Last updated on the 19th July 2018