Justice Joe Williams was the first fluent te reo Māori speaker to be appointed to the Court of Appeal.
In an article published by Victoria University's Faculty of Law in the 2018 edition of their annual alumni magazine, Justice Williams reflects on his career, including the revelation that he was the first member of his extended whānau to pass School Certificate and gain a law degree.
Justice Williams describes his work environment over the past year, and the changes that came with his move to the Court of Appeal.
"The great irony is my skills in te reo are pretty much redundant in this Court. That’s no reflection on the Court, but rather the nature of the work we do here. Te reo is used by registry staff to open and close the courts, as happens in other jurisdictions, and counsel will often introduce themselves in Māori. And there’s another sweet irony in the fact it’s almost exclusively Crown counsel who do it, and they do it as a matter of principle, and with pride, and that’s fantastic in my view. So, I do get to hear Māori during my working day but it’s not an ordinary language of discourse as it was for me at the Waitangi Tribunal and as a Māori Land Court judge, where exchanges between judges, who were often Māori themselves, and parties, are routinely conducted in te reo.
I do grieve the lack of Māori as a standard language of discourse in this jurisdiction and realistically I don’t think that will change in my lifetime," he says.
He was also asked whether law was buried in his whakapapa.
"Only in the sense that I was an argumentative brat. I was raised by my great aunt and uncle who I called Mum and Dad. He was a boxer who looked, and was built, like Mike Tyson. He worked as a brisket puncher in the freezing works. The brisket puncher’s job was to walk up and down the chain punching the pelt away from the carcass from the chest out. He’d retired by the time I was around 12, but it was clear he was revered as a strong man by the other butchers. Mum was a homemaker who worked incredibly hard and supplemented the family income with some seasonal picking jobs—tomatoes, asparagus, apples, peaches—whatever was going. She was the backbone of our family, really. Nobody in my entire whānau, and that’s hundreds of people, had even got School Certificate before me as far as I know. My siblings all left school at 15 and worked at the freezing works or in other labouring jobs," he says.
Justice Williams also reflects on the difference between the High Court and Court of Appeal.
"I miss the oxygen of human beings in the trial courts. In the High Court, even in the laundered environment of legal process, people appear before you in the flesh, often in the most stressful circumstances imaginable, and you are required to make decisions about people’s lives that will often be the most important decisions any public official will ever make for them. To play a part in that human narrative is still the most powerful thing in that job and I have always thought of it as an incredible privilege—and have often felt I fell short of its demands."
"The Court of Appeal does not have that. Here the humans are bleached out and we are stuck with what the American judge Justice Learned Hand called the “partial vacuum of the appellate record”, and I really feel that. But the advantage is that the issues are sharper, and the opportunities to interpret, build or evolve the law are present every day in your work in a way you would get only occasionally in the High Court. So, the price is worth paying," he says.