Khylee Quince tells it how it is. The associate professor of law at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) cracks up when discussing one cohort of students she teaches.
“Have you ever had to tell judges they don’t know how to do something?” she asks with a big grin.
“I have and it doesn’t go down well – at all.”
Ms Quince, of Te Roroa/Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou descent, is referring to workshops she holds for members of the judiciary. They began about three years ago and are aimed at improving the level of cultural understanding among judges.
“Basics” like addressing people in the courtroom, including whānau members, and getting a judge to introduce themselves when a new defendant enters, are covered. Making meaningful eye contact is also brought up.
The proud mother-of-three says traversing these things with judges – who are generally accustomed to being the lead authority on everything in their workplace – is interesting.
“Most lawyers are know-it-alls, but judges are definitely on their own level,” she says to laughter from both of us.
“For some, no one’s challenged them for years on anything, and then to have someone like me come in and say: ‘You know, you’re not very good at that,’ – well, it can be a lot. I suppose I’m quite rude and irreverent, but I’m Ngāpuhi and that’s what we do.”
Decades in the business
It should be noted that Ms Quince is being a tad generous in her analysis here.
Yes, she is forthright and passionate. However, she is far from rude and presumptuous. When I meet her, she welcomes me into an office decorated with movie posters and memorabilia from her favourite football team, Liverpool.
A quick scan of her CV shows why she was approached to work with judges on cultural competence problems. Aside from her Ngāpuhi genes, the 47-year-old has more than 20 years’ experience in teaching and researching law. Her areas of interest include criminal, youth justice and family law, as well as Māori in the justice system. She is also an outspoken advocate for justice reform. Simply put, Ms Quince believes the justice system and those working in it must change to honour the principles of Te Tiriti and stop further marginalisation of Māori.
A breakdown of her academic career shows most of it has been at her alma mater, the University of Auckland. During that time, she became the tumuaki Māori – head of the Māori student programme. In 2017, an opportunity saw her shift “down the road” to AUT where she is associate head of the law school and director of Māori and Pacific advancement.
“We do this appallingly”
One of the projects Ms Quince is working on aims to implement Te Tiriti education and the history of New Zealand law into legal studies.
“I think we do this appallingly … around the country,” she says.
The research project is called Indigenising Legal Education in New Zealand. It involves all 10 Māori legal academics from the country’s law schools. Of those, Ms Quince is the longest serving. It has also received funding from the Michael & Suzanne Borrin Foundation.
“We don’t do a lot of work together,” Ms Quince says of her fellow Māori legal academics. “It’s not because we don’t want to, but you’re constantly putting out fires in your own whare – so this is really important.
“One of our issues for 25 years now is how we get better Treaty education, and how we get better New Zealand-focused law education, particularly Māori custom law and Pacific law. It’s that area of regionally specific law that’s relevant to who we are in Aotearoa. We want to do more of that.”
Each of her colleagues had been “chipping away” at the issue individually, she says, and a collective decision was made to bring everything together under one project. They are hoping to have a proposal ready for the law school deans next year.
“When you’re the minority person, you’re always on the back foot,” Ms Quince says.
“People take it personally when you ask for something – change to a systemic thing.
“We take the heat out of that a bit with a joint approach. It also gives it some proper gravitas and mana by saying: ‘We’ve gone around all the law schools and we’ve looked internationally. Here’s what’s happening globally; here are your obligations, and here’s how you could do it better’.”
Ms Quince also believes the cross-university approach will help spread the expertise of her colleagues to where it is required, particularly in the South Island. She notes that the University of Canterbury has no Māori legal academics, while Professor Jacinta Ruru has been the sole Māori legal academic at the University of Otago for “a very long time”. Ms Quince is also the only Māori legal academic at AUT.
When I ask her what an outcome for the research project could look like, without missing a beat, she says Te Tiriti education would be a compulsory part of legal studies and “right up the front” – beginning with first-year students.
Ms Quince talks about how the lack of knowledge around Te Tiriti and its impact on New Zealand’s legal system among law students has remained unchanged throughout her career. She also says that knowledge shortfall is common for students at both the University of Auckland and AUT.
“It’s just a testament to wide, systemic educational failure of all people in New Zealand.”
What she has found different at AUT is the lack of hostility towards Te Tiriti. Ms Quince puts this down to the contrast between student demographics at each institution.
“AUT pitches itself, and I think very appropriately, as the university of access,” she says. “Even though it is a professional degree, we take ‘all-comers’. It’s only in coming here that I’ve realised that even the Māori and Pacific kids at [the University of] Auckland are like the brown middle-class.”
While there are “pōhara [poor] kids” at the University of Auckland, generally they come from two-parent families and have parents who work in professions like teaching and law, she says.
At AUT, many of the students are the first in their families to attend university. Nearly half are also not school-leavers with many mums and dads in their 40s. Additionally, the motivation for earning a law degree varies widely between the student groups, Ms Quince says.
She reflects on how student background impacts discussions around Te Tiriti. The “attitude” among certain students at the University of Auckland often limited student development, Ms Quince says dryly.
“It’s that inherited attitude which makes people quite averse to talking about the Treaty,” she says.
“Here [at AUT], there’s none of that. While they’re just as bad in terms of not having the knowledge around the Treaty, they don’t have an attitude towards it. It means we can talk about it without people descending into conversations around valuing one way of doing things over another.”
A South Auckland legal education
For Ms Quince, that shift in student demographics has broadened her ideals around teaching legal studies. AUT’s presence in South Auckland is a big part of that.
“One of the big selling points for me coming here is that we’ve opened a campus at Manukau. There is a cohort of 80 to 100 students at South Campus and they can almost do their entire degree in Manukau.”
She believes the success of AUT’s law school lies in developing its programme at Manukau. A big part of that involves increasing interaction of the university with the legal community in South Auckland so students are regularly exposed to practical situations in the local community.
“Our [South] campus is right next to the courts, the police, next to all of the lawyers and the Public Defence Service. There’s a legal community hub that is in really close proximity to our campus, and I think that provides us with an opportunity to give them a South Auckland legal education,” Ms Quince says.
“It should be much more practical, and there should be tie-ins with community institutions and marae out there, and really examine what is going on in New Zealand’s biggest growing city.”
Transforming that vision to become part of the AUT legal curriculum is a “work in progress”. The department is only 10 years old, so there is plenty of room for growth, she says. For now, it is listed as one of Ms Quince’s medium to long-term goals. And just like Te Tiriti education for law students, she is working to make sure it occurs sooner, rather than later.
Teuila Fuatai is an Auckland-based freelance journalist.