On 3 September, the Law Society will arrive at exactly 150 years since it was first organised under the New Zealand Law Society’s Act 1869. I could go on about the detailed history, and what happened in 1897. I could talk about the fact that in that year, not long after the establishment of the Law Society, we saw the first Māori lawyer (Sir Āpirana Ngata) and the first woman to be admitted to the bar (Ethel Benjamin). About the example they set all those years ago.
But as someone once said to me, “you only look back insofar as you are prepared to look forward”. In other words, we should only look at history if we are prepared to learn from what happened with a view to making the future better. The truth is that in 2019, we have yet to fulfil the promise of a profession that reflects the society we serve. While we have just over 800 lawyers that identify as Māori, this is out of a total number of 14,000 and does not reflect the national population. The Law Society has only recently accepted the need to come halfway and do the work required to gain cultural competency in te reo and tikanga. Ethel Benjamin was not supported at all by the Law Society and was restricted from being able to use the law library. She set up a business and succeeded as New Zealand’s first female lawyer, in spite of the organisation. And while the profession comprises just over 50% women, we have yet to achieve gender equality at the top senior levels and pay parity. And if anyone doubted that was the case, the revelations of 2018 confirmed a sad reality. We have a culture which no longer works. So yes, we have come a long way. But the distance we have yet to travel is like shooting for the moon and back.
The good news is that we are starting to confront that history. In fact, Aotearoa New Zealand, as a country, appears to be confronting a whole lot of truths about whether “this is not us” is a true statement. After 50 years of a “get tough on crime” policy we have a Government openly acknowledging that a punitive approach to criminal justice simply does not work. An independent review of the Family Court reforms proved that reducing the funding for a court dealing with vulnerable people and complex cases was a mistake. Importantly, as a profession we are all holding up the mirror and taking a good, long and uncomfortable look at ourselves. Dame Silvia Cartwright put it pretty squarely before us when she said the profession has arrived at “a watershed moment”. We have. The water has been building for some time. Possibly for 150 years. We are now at the point break where it is finally tipping into a wave. We can either be completely engulfed by it or ride the wave to a totally new future. I believe we can get there. To get to a place where the profession actively strives for inclusion and, therefore, becomes more diverse. Where equity is the touchstone. Where we fight for access to justice for all. One where Sir Āpirana Ngata and Ethel Benjamin would be proud that, despite the effort required to break the barriers they faced and the discrimination they undoubtedly experienced, it was worth it. It was worth it because the very purpose of what we do is to be fair and serve our community. It is what they did. And so shall we.
John F Kennedy once said “we do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. He was talking about getting a human to the moon for the first time and the effort it would take. What we are facing is not that different. We will do this and succeed because it must be done. Because if we don’t then we have failed to achieve our very purpose as a legal profession. To be just and fear not.
Tiana Epati, President, New Zealand Law Society.