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It's bit like being an outsider: Mina Wharepouri

11 December 2013

by Turei Mackey 

“What I have noticed now I’m on my own is I do the same job without the level of support I once had, and rely now on my own initiative to get by. But this is no different for any other barrister, criminal law or civil. You’ve chosen to go it alone,’’ says barrister Mina Wharepouri.

In 2012 Mr Wharepouri moved from the role of Crown prosecutor to defence counsel. Involved in several high profile cases while serving as senior Crown prosecutor for Meredith Connell, the 41-year-old is enjoying seeing criminal law from the other side of the court.

“The problem of course is prosecuting is only half of the job and there are certain limitations that a career faces if you remain only as a prosecutor. If you want to develop the full well-rounded set of skills then I think you have to go to the defence bar and become a barrister.’’

He maintains a good relationship with former Crown colleagues but sometimes views the relationship as opposing sides coming head on at a problem.

“I’m more aware of that feeling now I’m on the other side of the bench. Now as a defence lawyer it is a bit like being an outsider looking in while they’re standing next to the fire and I’m outside in the elements.’’

Mr Wharepouri’s law ambitions started back in the late 1980s while still at Otahuhu College in South Auckland.

While being at a school with a more notable reputation for producing top athletes than top trial lawyers, his parents ‒ of Māori and Tongan heritage ‒ placed a high emphasis on their son to succeed in education.

But there were stumbles along the way. His university entrance exam scores were not sufficient to gain general admission into law school at Auckland University and Mina was made to go through on the targeted Māori admission scheme to gain entrance.

“I remember there was, at that time at least, a certain stigma attached to Māori students who had to utilise the Māori quota system. It meant I was keen to ensure that while I might have needed to use the quota system to enter law school, it was really going to be how I left law school.

“Were it not for the system I wouldn’t have graduated from Auckland University with honours and I wouldn’t have been able to go on to Cambridge University.’’

Stints with both Kensington Swan and Russell McVeagh in the 1990s allowed Mina the possibility of furthering his academic study.

 “Joe Williams (now Justice) was the litigation partner at Kensington Swan and recruited me right out of law school. At that time he had established the treaty issues team which had a number of people supportive in my career progressing.’’

One of the people on that team was Christian Whata, now a High Court judge in Christchurch, who convinced Mina to earn his master’s degree in law at Cambridge in 1999.

“As a former Cambridge graduate himself he was really supportive and felt I would benefit from the experience. He helped me to complete all the paperwork and submit the application form and placed me in touch by way of email with his former teaching professors.”

After graduating from Cambridge, Mr Wharepouri joined London-based firm Devonshires where the Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry in 1972 made him consider criminal law as his chosen legal pathway.

“At the time one of their biggest clients was the Ministry of Defence and we were to assist the parachute regiment which was subject to the inquiry. I helped brief a number of barristers involved in that period, also a number of key witnesses. So I spent a lot of time between London, Derry, Belfast and Dublin,’’ he says.

“That whole experience made me think about what I was doing with my legal career at that point as I was growing tired of civil law.’’

He returned to New Zealand in 2005 and joined Meredith Connell where he worked for eight years doing jury trials in the District and High Courts with cases ranging from drug charges to serious violence and sex charges.

“At the end of the day I didn’t know I was going to end up at the criminal defence bar. I had this inclination that was where my career was going to head. My reason for going to Meredith Connell and the Crown was it was the best place for a young lawyer to acquire the most experience in the shortest amount of time,’’ Mr Wharepouri says.

“You couldn’t beat the training and exposure they gave a person who aspired to be a criminal lawyer.”

Mr Wharepouri says the role of the defence lawyer in the public’s eye is a badly typecast one but what they don’t realise is regardless of prosecution or defence, the truth sits at the heart of the criminal justice system.

“It doesn’t really matter whether I’m acting as a Crown prosecutor or a defence lawyer. All my job requires is to ask the right question, at the right time and in the right way. And provided I do that the hope will be that the truth emerges.”

Many defence lawyers can attest to the challenge of dealing with clients and their added stresses. Mr Wharepouri believes understanding and breaking down the process is the best way to interact.

“What I try and do is distil the language, legal concepts and the court process to their very essence and explain that to the client. And it is surprising, many of the clients I have dealt with, despite their backgrounds, are exceptionally bright people. It doesn’t take them long to grasp the process.’’

“But I’ve found that most of the people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are Māori or Pacific Islander and from low socio-economic backgrounds. And I know sometimes they want a lawyer, but sometimes they want a social worker, sometimes they want a confidant and sometimes they just want to have a conversation with somebody who understands where they’re coming from.’’

“There is a lot of tension between what the client expects from you and your duty to the court and as an officer of the court. But many of the people we engage with have never really had someone who is prepared to stand up, argue and defend them. Provided you’re prepared to do that they’re quite happy regardless of the outcome.’’

This article was first published in LawTalk 826, 30 August 2013, page 4. 

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Last updated on the 17th August 2015