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South Auckland's Mormon defence lawyer: Panama Le'Au'Anae

12 May 2020 - By Teuila Fuatai

Panama Le'au'anae sums up more than 30 years of work as a criminal and family lawyer: “Some of the cases that I’ve dealt with are really the worst types of human behaviour”.

Measured and resolute, the comment is not intended to be unkind or disparaging. Rather, it is one part of Mr Le'au'anae’s explanation for his chosen career path.

The veteran South Auckland barrister has defended hundreds of sexual abuse and serious assault charges over the years. There have also been three murder trials, New Zealand’s first slavery charge and more recently, the highly publicised child sex offender case of Auckland school rugby coach Alosio Taimo.

It is a collection which pits him as one of the most experienced defence advocates in Manukau. He is also the current head of the South Auckland Bar Association. However, as he recounts some of his more memorable cases, it is an entirely different aspect of his life which becomes the initial focus of our interview.

The church and the law

Mr Le'au'anae is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As his career as a legal advocate has grown, so too has his leadership and community service roles in his church ministry.

The ability to reconcile the two has been essential to his perseverance and success in both, he says.

Panama

“My religious background is extremely important for me because it really determines how I deal with my clients,” Mr Le'au'anae says.

“I don’t support criminal behaviour. That would be the last thing I would be a disciple of, but at the same time, somebody needs to be their advocate. Somebody has to find some good, or some touchpoint in their background which has led to their offending.”

The foundation provided by his faith is essential to that, particularly in cases which involve serious criminal charges. Often, it means addressing his clients, and the courtroom, in a less conventional way.

“I’ve done a lot of sexual cases, and I’ve actually been successful in a large number of them,” Mr Le'au'anae says.

“Overall, I’ve been more successful than not in my criminal jury trials, and I’m pleased with how that’s turned out. It’s probably not the thing to do, but sometimes I indicate in my submission that from a personal perspective, I also find the behaviour quite abhorrent and despicable.

“I am also very apologetic, not just on behalf of my clients, but also in my own views. I try to convey that what has happened is something my client - usually a ‘he’ - will have to live with for the rest of his life,” he says.

“That goes back to my religious background – I don’t condone that type of behaviour. But that doesn’t detract from being a thorough advocate.”

‘Glorified mail boy’

The fair-minded and honest approach shines through in Mr Le'au'anae’s description of his early years of practice. The first in his family to attend university, Mr Le'au'anae says it took a while to establish himself as a court lawyer after he graduated from the University of Auckland in 1981.

“First of all, I wasn’t one of those smart cookies - I scraped through university,” he says.

“And then I worked for a year in the Lands and Deeds department. I was a glorified mail boy and my job was to collect the mail in the morning and give it to the District Land Registrar. I couldn’t get on to any of the teams which did actual legal work. After a while, I thought: ‘I didn’t end up going to university to be a mail boy’.”

His first break came via a job opportunity as a legal adviser with the Development Bank of Western Sāmoa (DBWS). At the time, it meant a three-and-a-half-year stint in Sāmoa for Mr Le'au'anae, his wife and their two young boys. The job also led to a part-time role in the Attorney General’s office, which was Mr Le'au'anae’s first foray into criminal work.

“It really was a blessing in disguise,” he says of his family’s time in Sāmoa.

“Although my parents are Sāmoan, I had lived in New Zealand my whole life and couldn’t speak Sāmoan. It was while I worked in Sāmoa that I learnt to speak Sāmoan. I also managed to get seconded to the A-G’s office while I was up there, and I would carry out criminal prosecutions. It’s where I got my first taste of criminal work.”

When he returned to Auckland, he found a job with a small firm in Queen Street. His arrival coincided with the departure of another lawyer from the firm to return to Sāmoa.

“That’s how I got my start here. But if I hadn’t had the job with DBWS, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a job.

“I worked for two firms for three years and then I went out on my own and hung out my shingle,” Mr Le'au'anae says.

From general practitioner to barrister

His first office was in the central city. As his practice expanded, he opened a second one in South Auckland. At its height, Mr Le'au'anae employed four lawyers and provided conveyancing, immigration, family and criminal legal services. Among his past staff members is current District Court Judge Margaret Rogers.

“I managed to hire one of the lawyers from Masterton. She came up and ran the K’ Road office. She is now a judge but that’s how she ended up in Auckland,” he says proudly.

Mr Le'au'anae also talks about the small number of Pasifika lawyers in Auckland during the early years of his practice, and the eventual shift of his entire business to Manukau.

“Back then, there were very few lawyers of ethnic background. There was probably one Tongan, and two Sāmoan law firms, and a few out on their own. Really, it was a very small group of us of Pasifika background that had law firms,” he says.

“Eventually, it wasn’t financially viable to run two offices and I wasn’t getting a lot of work through the K Road office. By then, a lot of my clients were in South Auckland, so I closed the town office and practised principally from Ōtāhuhu.”

The move to his current location at Friendship House Chambers in Manukau in 2005 is marked by one of the more challenging incidents in his career and personal life. While it led to a more definitive focus on criminal jury trials and family law, it is not the path he wanted.

“I had a very sad thing that happened – I had someone close to me who defrauded some money from me. It meant I had to go from being a general practitioner to being a barrister. I had to deal with that issue and that’s why I ended up specialising in criminal and family law. I’ve been a barrister ever since,” he says.

Understanding South Auckland

It is a legal career with unique highs and lows, steadied by Mr Le'au'anae’s beliefs and passion for legal advocacy. As we near the end of the interview, I ask whether he has considered switching sides to be a prosecutor. Mr Le'au'anae’s answer is grounded in where he believes his skills are needed most, particularly regarding Pasifika communities and South Auckland.

“You see, as soon as you mention South Auckland - that conjures up a very bad connotation of the people that live out here,” he says.

“And that’s really sad, because there are some very good people and very good lawyers who advocate for their clients and go out of their way to look after some very marginalised and vulnerable people and children.

“Some of them have horrendous backgrounds, for one reason or another. Unfortunately, as lawyers and judges, we are at the bottom of the cliff. We can’t prevent the things that are happening, but we can try and make it a lot more palatable and a lot more compassionate.”

His ongoing dedication to defence advocacy stems from that, and the experience he has built over the years working with clients of Sāmoan descent.

“I used to mainly see Sāmoan clients,” Mr Le'au'anae says. “Now, there’s more of a range, but still a lot of Pasifika. Having that [cultural background] in common, and being able to speak Sāmoan is so important. It makes a huge difference.

“I’ve never thought about being a prosecutor because there’s plenty of those out there. But experienced Sāmoan defence lawyers, or even Pasifika defence lawyers with the level of experience I have – there’s so few of us around to advocate for our people.”

Teuila Fuatai teuila.fuatai@gmail.com is an Auckland-based journalist.

Last updated on the 12th May 2020