New Zealand Law Society - Kia Kaha Reo Māori: A judge’s perspective

Kia Kaha Reo Māori: A judge’s perspective

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The first Māori-speaking judge appointed to the Court of Appeal, Justice Joseph Williams, reflects on his first nine months on the court, shares some observations on the growing use of te reo in the courts and issues a language challenge for New Zealand’s lawyers.

How have you found your first nine months as a judge on the Court of Appeal?

“Like every new kid at school, it has been a process of rapid acclimatisation. 

“The workload can get very intense but the fact that you are always sitting with others really helps. Of course, in the end we have to agree on the outcome, and that is not always easy.  The process of shared decision-making very much suits me I think.”

What are your observations on the progress of Te Reo use in the courts since you’ve been appointed?

“Well, I started as a Judge in the Māori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal where Te Reo was and still is widely used. So, when I moved to the High Court eight years later, it was a little strange to hear only English. But that has changed quite dramatically. 

“As you know openings and closings in court are in Te Reo and counsel will often introduce themselves in Te Reo. It is routine for the Crown to do so in this Court, and I think in the High Court too. Other counsel are starting to follow suit and now my judicial colleagues are wanting to learn basic phrases to respond in Te Reo when those introductions are given.

“This has been a wonderfully organic process. The Court itself started the process and now it’s catching [on]. I think this reflects underlying shifts in the national attitude to the place of Te Reo in our lives.

“I should add that I have recently been in discussions with the Supreme Court of Hawaii about the use of Hawaiian language in their Courts. They think that our bi-lingual innovations provide an excellent model for them.  I understand they plan to emulate what we are doing and are very excited about it.”

Do you think Te Reo is becoming normalised in the legal profession?

“Yes I do.

“It will be a slow process, and I don’t think we will be a fully bi-lingual legal system any time soon but we are, again organically, definitely heading in that direction.  Who knows where we will be on this journey in a generation’s time.”

Will you be participating in Mahuru Māori this year?

Mahuru Māori is a movement started by Māori language teachers and students to speak only Māori in September (the month of Māori language week). It too is gathering momentum. 

“It might be difficult for me to conduct a court in Māori, so I’m not fully immersed in Mahuru Māori, but I send all emails to recipients who have even a basic command of Māori, in Māori.  And speak Māori to those who I think will understand me.

“In addition, I run a Māori language class for judges and judges clerks every Tuesday and this week’s class (being Māori language week) will have special significance.”

Can you issue a language challenge to lawyers for Māori Language Week, please?

“My challenge to lawyers is to use Māori this week. 

“Whether in the introductions, in signoffs of letters and emails, or introducing yourself in Court, or just saying Kia ora to your colleagues – do something to help build this ground swell in the way we do law in Aotearoa.”

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