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Justice Joe Williams: The future has never been brighter

06 October 2011

Justice Joe WilliamsWhat makes a Māori lawyer a genuine champion?

For those who want to work in Māori areas of law it is important to be not only expert and passionate about Māori values, culture and customs, but to be the best lawyer you can be, says Justice Joe Williams.

"Don’t just be a good Māori. Be a good Māori and a good lawyer.

"The future has never been brighter for young Māori lawyers wishing to work with Māori communities in positive developmental areas. The challenge for Māori lawyers is to be up to scratch with the quality of work and that will come with time and experience. The area of Māori work that is available for Māori lawyers is expanding in volume and quantity and as the Māori population and Māori economy grow," he says.

It’s a new world for Māori lawyers compared to the one Justice Williams was in when he began studying law in 1981. It was rare then to find another Māori student in the class. He says there were, and still are, high levels of expectation for young Māori lawyers to be amazing straight away.

"There is great deal of expectation for young Māori lawyers to deliver the goods early, but I would say to them 'patience, grasshopper, patience’. Spend time learning and learn from the best," he says.

Accomplished, respected and passionate, there are few better qualified to give this type of advice than Justice Williams.

Among other things, Justice Williams was the youngest appointed Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court. Starting university as a fresh faced student who admits he didn’t know what a lawyer was, Justice Williams is now a High Court Judge with an impressive career.

"I met a group of intelligent young Māori who were studying law and the things they were arguing about in law and society were interesting, so I picked it up. I studied alongside people like Shane Jones and Annette Sykes. I had outstanding teachers like Sir Kenneth Keith, Lindsay Mackay, and John Thomas and developed a passion and love for law," he says.

After completing his LLB, Justice Williams began working as a junior lecturer at Victoria University, and after convincing the faculty to have it, he co-taught the first course in Māori land law with Alex Frame. In 1986 Justice Williams went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and did an LLM in Indigenous Rights Law graduating with first class honours.

"Canada was five years ahead in terms of development in this area of law. All the big aboriginal and treaty cases were being decided there at the time. Also one of the foremost writers in the field was based there, Professor Doug Sanders.

"My time in Vancouver opened my eyes to the fact that these particular issues weren’t unique to New Zealand, they were part of a single global story arising out of a collision between Europe and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia," he says.

Being involved at the trial stage of one of the most important aboriginal title cases in the common law world, Delgamuukw v British Columbia [1997] 3 SCR 1010, taught Justice Williams that it was possible to work in this particular field of indigenous peoples’ rights in the private sector. Working for tribes did not have to be charitable spare-time work.

"In New Zealand in those days if you wanted to focus on Māori issues law you either had to be an academic or work for the Māori Affairs department. No one could make a living acting for Māori in this particular field.”

Justice Williams says he learnt a great deal about the science and art of litigation from his time at Kensington Swan where he went on to become partner and built up a specialist in-house unit focusing on Māori clients and treaty claims.

"I was taught by some of the best litigators in the country. They taught me how to get up on my hind legs and advocate. Foremost among my teachers was the great Don Dugdale who passed away very recently.

"I think it was the first such unit in any of the big firms. There was an enormous body of work out there for people who knew what they were doing. So I hoped to combine my specialist training in the academy, my litigation skills and my own personal passion for the kaupapa and build a successful and more importantly useful team that would assist Māori people through this phase of development," he says.

Justice Williams says his first Treaty claim was both exhilarating and harrowing. Working for traditional Māori communities was such a privilege where, he says, the old people taught him so much about himself. He also describes leading a young team of lawyers that litigated a key aspect of the 1992 Māori fisheries settlement as one of the highlights of his career.

"The case involved the issue of what ‘iwi’ meant. We sought to explain to judges both the customary concept of iwi and the law surrounding the fisheries settlement. It was one of the most challenging things I've done and one of the coolest. Conducting a four-week trial over such an important matter, in English and Māori, was a fantastic thing to do for a young lawyer," he says. “But in addition, to have argued the thing before a full Court of the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council was an exceptional experience.”

After building a successful practice from scratch with John Walters and Grant Powell from 1994 to 1999, when Justice Williams left for the bench, he felt very proud of what he and his team had achieved.

"I thought the Māori Land Court had a really great future. In the post settlement process it was important the Māori Land Court was properly set up to deal with the downstream issues that tribal corporate bodies would have both intra and inter-tribally. The Māori Land Court was perfectly placed to take that opportunity up and I worked for a long time to convince people to that end.

"We didn’t get all the way but we made good progress,” he says. “There is unfinished business there, but I still see the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Court into iwi assets as a natural and necessary evolution.”

As Chairperson of the Waitangi Tribunal, Justice Williams played a pivotal role in the report on the Wai 262 claim relating to New Zealand’s law and policy affecting Māori culture and identity.

Currently a Judge of the High Court, Justice Williams says that it was a big shock to suddenly be stuck in the chambers and on a generalist diet after being a specialist for so many years.

"I do miss human contact, particularly with the Māori community, but the work is just brilliant. It gives you a wide and holistic perspective on law and its real-world effects. I also get to work with and learn from a number of razor sharp judges," he says.

Of the justice system, Justice Williams believes that there is a very strong argument to pilot tikanga Māori based courts in some parts of the country.

"I think it’s unarguable that there is a case to develop specialist Māori criminal courts in some areas. To make the processing of the issues more sensitive to the culture of the players within them makes good sense from a social cohesion point of view. The Rangatahi Courts championed by Judge Taumaunu are a great start.

“The experience of using Nga Hau e Wha Marae as a courtroom in Christchurch shows how just changing the setting can make a positive difference. Although I would be disappointed if we just changed the surroundings and didn’t look at the process within.

“Coming from my experience in the Māori Land Court, it worries me how little the people themselves play a role in mainstream jurisdictions. People seem often to be crowded out by the weight of the process. I came from a jurisdiction where judges are seen very much as a part of the community and I witnessed first-hand the advantages of that ethos.

"Whether specialised Māori Courts can be taken up on a national scale is a big question but it is a question that should be asked,” Justice Williams says.

This article was published in LawTalk 781, 23 September 2011, page 14.

Last updated on the 17th August 2015