The new Chief District Court Judge, Heemi Taumaunu, is the first Māori lawyer to hold the position, and has his sights set on improving the court system experience for all New Zealanders.
He is one of a number of select Māori lawyers who have risen to the highest levels in the justice sector over the past year. Judge Taumaunu’s appointment mirrors the achievements of Justice Joe Williams, the first Māori Supreme Court Judge, and Damian Stone who was appointed as a Judge of the Māori Land Court.
While Judge Taumaunu acknowledges this progression for Māori, it’s not something he feels comfortable talking about, and he reminds me of an important Māori saying about being modest about achievements.
“Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka.” The saying refers to the kumara not speaking about its own sweetness.
Before a life in law, Judge Taumaunu was a career soldier. His whānau moved to Christchurch from Gisborne when he was young and it was there that he attended Riccarton High School. At 16, he joined the New Zealand Army as a Webb Class Regular Force Cadet and served as a Regular Force soldier for a year and a non-commissioned officer in the Royal New Zealand Signals Corp for a further four years.
After leaving the force he turned his mind to the law. When Judge Taumaunu began his law studies at Victoria University in Wellington there were very few other Māori students in his classes, something that has changed over the past 20 years. In 1993 he graduated and initially was a solicitor with the Immigration Service before moving back to the East Coast in 1994 where he practised as a barrister for a decade. It was in Gisborne that he became heavily involved in the court system, gaining vast experience in jury trials, as a Youth Advocate in the Youth Court, and as a lawyer for child and counsel to assist in the Family Court.
Judge Taumaunu was appointed to the District Court bench in 2004 and notes that the bench is becoming more diverse in its makeup – which perhaps reflects the communities it now serves.
He is a fluent te reo Māori speaker. His tribal affiliations are Ngāti Pōrou and its sub-tribe Ngāti Konohi, and Ngāi Tahu. He was the first person from Ngāti Konohi to gain a law degree and to practise as a barrister and solicitor.
‘Access to Justice’ means a fair hearing
Judge Taumaunu’s views on what access to justice should look like are a powerful narrative about fairness for everyone.
“Access to justice in a modern sense needs to be looked at in the context of what are unprecedented calls for transformative change. That is a call that is essentially being directed at the District Court.”
He says it should be remembered that 95% of the justice dispensed in New Zealand is across the District Court jurisdictions.
“The consistent theme that comes through is that ordinary New Zealanders who are having contact with the court in whatever form it may be – as a victim of a crime, as a defendant in a criminal case or as a parent or guardian in the Family Court or a person who needs a dispute resolved in the civil jurisdiction – there’s a sentiment that either they can’t access justice or that when a person comes to court, they’re not being heard or understood,” he says.
“That translates into some people feeling as if they didn’t get a fair trial or they haven’t been heard properly.”
It’s a big challenge that must be addressed, he says, regardless of whether they agree with the outcome of a case.
“It’s not so much about the outcome, it’s about the process that we’re adopting to ensure that they actually are heard and understood and that they believe they have had a fair hearing,” he says.
Judge Taumaunu has a close connection with his Māori culture and heritage. He has been the tangata whenua representative on the Chief Judge’s Advisory Group and has chaired the Kaupapa Māori Advisory Group. In these roles he has been a driving force in encouraging the District Court to embrace tikanga as a way to enhance Māori engagement and confidence in the court.
Pioneer of the Rangatahi Courts
The new Chief District Court Judge is regarded as a pioneer of Ngā Kōti Rangatahi o Aotearoa – the Rangatahi Courts – having developed the first Rangatahi Court in Gisborne in 2008. In 2017 he received the Veillard-Cybulski Award, an international tribute recognising innovative work with children and families in difficulty, through the Rangatahi Courts initiative.
Ngā Kōti Rangatahi operates under the same law as the Youth Court. Young people who admit to their offending have the option of having their Family Group Conference Plan monitored by the court on a marae, following Māori cultural processes. Pasifika Courts also operate in the same way, but are held in Pacific churches or community centres and follow cultural processes. These courts are designed to help Māori and Pacific young people to engage in the youth justice process. They are also designed to better involve Māori and Pacific families and communities in the youth justice process.
Over-representation of Māori in the justice system
Māori make up 51% of the prison population. It’s a tragic statistic and Judge Taumaunu says the country must do better.
“The over-representation of Māori is simply too great. As the leader of the District Court bench, we will need to take a very calm and measured approach to this long-standing issue.
“One of the ways to do so is to build on the initiatives that we have already taken. We need to develop best practice lessons that we are learning from courts such as Rangatahi and the Matariki Court and all of the other specialist and therapeutic courts and ensure that, from Kaitaia to Invercargill, all New Zealanders are able to benefit from those best practice lessons,” he says.
Judge Taumaunu says he intends to lead from the bench in tackling the complex issues facing the court system.
“Ultimately, I’d like us to get to a point over the next eight years while I’m in this role that, regardless of what court a person has contact with in New Zealand, they’ll get a similar access to justice experience. How this will look and work, is something we’ll work on,” he says.
Life outside law and the importance of whānau
Spending time with family is very important to Judge Taumaunu. He is married with three adult children, and there is also his extended family from the East Coast.
He comes from the small seaside village of Whāngārā near Gisborne. If that village appears familiar, is because it was featured in the New Zealand movie Whale Rider.
“Where I come from there is a huge emphasis on manaakitanga for visitors. To me that’s about diving and collecting seafood. That’s a big part of how I spend my recreational time,” he says.
On 19 October, a special sitting for Chief Judge Taumaunu was held at the Whāngārā Marae.
Of over 250 people in attendance there were nearly 60 judges representing all jurisdictions, including the Chief Justice.
Serving his marae is also a priority for Judge Taumaunu and he gains a lot of satisfaction from being a role model to young Māori, particularly lawyers.
“When I decided to leave the army and go to law school, I was inspired by Sir Apirana Ngata who was born on the East Coast. I was inspired by the idea that he was a Māori and following in his footsteps resonated very deeply with me.
“The appointment of Justice Joe Williams to the Supreme Court, my appointment to this role and the fact that we have Judges of the District Court who are Māori throughout the country, including Judges of the Māori Land Court, I think young Māori lawyers should take on some confidence in expressing themselves as Māori and be encouraged by the bench. Many of these calls for transformative change are not going to be led just by the judiciary, they need to be led by the law profession as well,” Judge Taumaunu says.
Photo supplied by the Office of the Chief District Court Judge.