In July, what is likely to be the world’s first Feminist Moot was held by the Victoria University of Wellington Feminist Law Society (VUWFLS). The event was inspired by our experiences as young women in the legal profession, as well as in anticipation of the challenges entering New Zealand’s legal system, prompted by recent events highlighting gender issues. Getting started was an exciting but daunting prospect as we struggled to find evidence of anything similar being done before, with the exception of a panel at Durham University in the UK discussing how a feminist moot may be run, but no competition ever being held.
When we began writing the problem question, we wanted to encourage competitors to incorporate both feminist legal theory and tikanga principles into their submissions. We also wanted to create a safe community space at law school, which has historically been a masculine arena.
Our moot acknowledged that the traditional ways moots and real life litigation play out perpetuate gender biases, whether that be through the imposing architecture of courthouses, restrictions on what women can wear, or the adversarial nature of submissions at trial. The need for major structural changes in the legal sector’s organisation can seem insurmountable and overwhelming at times, so we hoped this moot could add to existing conversations already being had about how legal reform can encourage equity amongst those who come to our courts, or those who deal regularly in legal settings.
We tasked ourselves with finding an area of law with competing feminist views. Narrowing this down proved challenging, especially because such areas tend to involve heavy subject matter requiring thoughtful engagement. We wanted to strike a balance between the necessity of talking about relevant, yet fraught, social issues with making sure students felt safe. We also wanted to remain conscious of discussing these topics from our own positions of privilege.
Eventually we decided that the most appropriate topic with balanced arguments for both sides was surrogacy. Arguments made by competitors focused on balancing the welfare of women receiving maintenance payments for undergoing a process giving up their body and autonomy, contrasting against the risk of commercial surrogacy and the potential for taking advantage of vulnerable women.
We had a plethora of feminist legal role models supporting us throughout the planning process with hot takes, speedy email responses and wise words of advice and encouragement. Incredibly, word spread within Wellington and we had people approaching us to tautoko (offer support) during the very early stages. We also took inspiration from the Feminist Judgments Project, which asked how seminal Aotearoa judgments would have read if written by a feminist judge to challenge the myth of judicial neutrality. It also contains a set of cases interpreted with mana wāhine approaches, respecting the complex issues Māori women face living under both colonisation and legacies of patriarchy.
When it came to the day of sign-ups, the spots filled up quickly and our preliminary round included eight teams of mooters. Competitors performed incredibly well, undertaking analyses of the child’s welfare and best interests on both sides of the problem. Its success speaks to students’ excitement to compete in something that challenged how a court looks and sounds to better represent them.
There were various differences between our Feminist Moot and regular moots or trials. Some of these included a reduced emphasis on formalities by relaxing the dress code and encouraging accessible language to be used by all. We also encouraged the expression of the individual mana of competitors and facilitated an awareness of the real lives involved in the case, rather than the dehumanisation that is often a by-product of legal focus. The judges also broke down barriers by introducing themselves with their mihi after competitors’ introductions, to minimise the power imbalances that normally exist.
We were fortunate enough to have Justice Glazebrook judge our finals, who exhibited her own feminist perspectives by declining to choose between the finalists and declaring a draw. However, our other judges, Steph Dyhrberg and Mariah Hori Te Pa, congratulated the talented Islay May Aitchison and Kellee Candy as winners.
We also facilitated a mentoring programme where we linked up wāhine working in law in Wellington to our moot competitors for support. We hope that initiative will continue to build enduring connections between different members of our community, and we would like to thank all those who volunteered their time as mentors.
Finally, after the event, we received feedback from participants which was invaluable in helping us to reflect on the moot and in looking to make this an annual competition at Victoria University. We also hope this will inspire other law schools around New Zealand to take up their own feminist moots, and eventually we hope to develop a national event.
Overall, what we proposed with the Feminist Moot is a new form of mooting that aims to teach different styles of argument and oral presentation skills, not based on assimilating with patriarchal conventions. We aimed to eradicate gender and race-based biases and to recognise the relationship between the law and the language it uses. In relaxing the rules around formal court processes and stressing to judges that equal weight should be placed on feminist and tikanga Māori perspectives, we hope we have created a starting point to be built upon. Though the moot was not as diverse and transformational as it could have been, it was the first of its kind, so we hope this event contributes to the work already being done by so many people to deconstruct, decolonise and pave a better way forward.
The Victoria University of Wellington Feminist Law Society is extremely grateful for the support of College of Law, without which the event could not have happened.