New Zealand Law Society - Cutting your own track: Chris Merrick

Cutting your own track: Chris Merrick

Chris Merrick’s tone deepens when he talks about his year of full-immersion learning in te reo Māori.

By Teuila Fuatai

At a cafe close to the South Auckland chambers he shares with four other Māori barristers, including his wife Corrin, he describes the impact of the 2016 course at Te Wānanga Takiura.

“It’s changed the way that I think about the law. The way that I analyse it and the way that I construct arguments has changed.”

Chris Merrick
Chris Merrick

The youth advocate and criminal barrister is of Te Whakapiko, Tongan (Ma’ufanga, Niua), and New Zealand European descent. Raised in South Auckland, he returned to his roots to set up his own law firm with Soana Moala – now a District Court judge – in 2012. Three years ago he became a barrister sole.

Appearing primarily at the Manukau District Court, most of Mr Merrick’s clients are young Māori. As he goes back over key developments in his career, it is clear the father-of-two considers development of his te reo Māori and cultural understanding integral to professional development.

Mr Merrick brings up submissions he made on behalf of Te Hunga Rōia Māori The Māori Law Society in the Court of Appeal case that resulted in new methamphetamine sentencing guidelines last year. In that, four whakataukī or Māori proverbs feature.

“I used them to lay the foundations for what the preceding arguments were going to be,” he says.

“Previously, I might not have done that, but when I thought about the particular arguments we were trying to make, the whakataukī goes to the heart of what I’m trying to say. So it makes sense to put it in and make it a natural part of the way I argue and write.”

Fitting culture into the law

It is why a year immersed in te reo Māori, largely away from the practice of law, made him a better lawyer, Mr Merrick says.

“I think it’s about knowing where your cultural knowledge and upbringing fits in. How they impact the arguments you run and how you run them. I think, as Māori people, as Pacific people, we’ve got a lot to offer as advocates in that space and there’s a lot of room to move there and cut your own track.”

He repeats that last phrase numerous times during our interview. It seems to be a strong theme for Mr Merrick throughout his career.

He goes back to when he and Judge Moala founded their law firm Moala Merrick. At the time, both were working as Crown prosecutors at Meredith Connell. Mr Merrick had been been at the firm for four years – starting at its Manukau office before moving into the central city.

“We had spoken about coming back to Manukau, working in our community and making the switch from prosecuting to defending,” he says.

“I also think we were pretty privileged to have worked at Meredith Connell and had the sort of training and experience we did. For me, in the relatively short period of time I was there, I managed to do a lot of really cool work. That set me up well to come out here and have a crack at it. The pull to being a youth advocate was also an important part of the decision, and being able to work for myself.”

It was also before he and his wife had any children and a mortgage, so it was “pretty low-risk in some ways”, he says with a laugh.

Different versions of success

Mr Merrick also discusses his shift to self-employment in the context of his earlier comments.

“I got to the four-year mark and to many people it was probably too early to go out on your own.

“But I think – and others have written about this – the nature of the law and the profession is that we’re conformists. Everything is precedent-based and we follow this precedent in court, and then in practice things are usually focused around ‘the well-trodden path’ to success.”

Mr Merrick believes young lawyers, particularly Māori and Pasifika, should assess what that means alongside their own unique experiences.

“For us, we come from different backgrounds, we have different versions of success and we have different family obligations.

“We’ve got to weigh that for ourselves and not be so tied into what the establishment thinks is the well-trodden path. I would encourage people to responsibly take risks and cut their own track.”

He talks about his own experience, and how standing aside from his peers almost resulted in a career away from the law.

“To be honest, in the beginning, I hated law school. It didn’t feel like it was a fit for the first couple of years. I really enjoyed my history papers, and was taking some Pacific Studies papers and Tongan language papers.

“I almost gave it [law] up ... because I seriously thought I would go on and do my post grad in history and carry on with that.”

Things changed during his final years of university. Mr Merrick recalls electives like legal history and criminal procedure beginning to pique his interest. There was also an advocacy course taught by Simon Mount QC, which demonstrated how legal principles worked practically. However, it was job stints at the Family and District Courts in Manukau, and the Auckland District Court, which he says cemented his interest in practising law.

“It was basically admin work ... but I got to see how the back office worked. At the Family Court in Manukau, I spent a summer as a registrar looking after Child, Youth and Family cases.”

Learning on-the-job

Then, after graduation, Mr Merrick took on a seven-month contract to work as a registrar at the Manukau District Court.

“I was covering for someone on maternity leave. I was sitting at the registrar’s desk in court calling matters,” he says. “That was a really cool opening to the court and to the sharp end of jury trial advocacy and court advocacy in general.”

Criminal lawyers Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff, Panama Le’au’anae, and Kirsten Gray, as well as his future partner, Judge Moala, are some of the personalities he fondly remembers from that period.

“It was really interesting to watch these people on their feet, and watch someone like Panama close a jury trial. I remember feeling inspired and thinking: ‘Yeah, I could do that’.”

An opportunity to observe in the Youth Court, via Judge Ida Malosi, was also important.

“She took me in there one day ... just so I could have a look. I didn’t have to do anything, just watch. And then one day, I got to help take court in there as a registrar.

“I really liked how the court worked and really enjoyed working with young people. I was also doing a little bit of mentoring work with my old school and I realised that was one of the areas I really wanted to pursue.”

The ups and downs of youth advocacy

Twelve years on, Mr Merrick says he would not have things any other way.

He believes the Youth Court is the most “hopeful” of the criminal jurisdictions in New Zealand.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but there are cases where you do make a difference. And when everyone is doing their job well, the outcomes for young people and their whānau can be really positive.”

Acknowledging its place within an overburdened judicial system with significant shortfalls for Māori, he touches on the intergenerational nature of offending and harm from it, and how some families grow up in the system.

“Some of the names of the files from when I was working as a student at the Family Court, I still encounter now. A lot of the children who I think were probably really young at that time, going through CYFs and Family Court processes as children, I’ve seen those names in the Youth Court.

“But, it’s not clearcut. There’s also cases of young people who come before the court with no obvious history of trauma, abuse or state care in their lives. At that point, like with all cases, it’s about getting the best outcome for everyone involved, and really asking whether a record of conviction or notation is a good thing for a 16 or 17-year-old,” he says.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry

That breadth of experience, and his knowledge of the disproprotionate harm certain elements of the justice system has for Māori, has been particularly useful in Mr Merrrick’s current role as counsel assisting to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in care.

We discuss the nature of the work, and what it is like to examine stories and evidence from survivors.

“It’s really sad to know that this is what was happening in our country,” he says.

Similar to his portrayal of the Youth Court system, Mr Merrick goes on to frame the inquiry and his role as necessary to achieving better outcomes for young people and their whānau.

“I’d like to see us change the way we care for our kids in this country, particularly children and whānau that need help – serious structural change.

“And while it’s really sad to know what has happened, I feel very privileged to be assisting in a process in which those stories will be acknowledged while working towards something which is going to make recommendations on how we do things better now and into the future.”

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

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