New Zealand Law Society - I wanted independence from a structured law firm: Moana Sinclair

I wanted independence from a structured law firm: Moana Sinclair

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By Frank Neill

About three or four months after returning to lawyering Moana Sinclair thought: “I want to set up my own law firm”. So she did.

She left the small firm where she had been employed and established Te Haa Legal Ltd, based in Otaki Beach.

“I just thought: ‘I can do this. I don’t want to be doing long hours for someone else. If I am doing those kind of hours, I am going to do it for myself.’

“I wanted independence from a structured law firm and it appealed to me to be working with tribal groups and my own people first of all.”

Her practice is a mixture of Treaty of Waitangi litigation, environmental law, Māori Land Court work and human rights law. In fact Ms Sinclair currently sits on the Human Rights Tribunal and has been a mediator for the Human Rights Commission.

As well as being located where Ms Sinclair is from (she of Ngati Toa Rangatira, Ngati Kauwhata and Rangitane o Manawatu descent), it is ideally situated for her work, as most of her clients are found from Otaki to Taihape and also in the far north.

Much of her work is in the three Treaty of Waitangi inquiry districts: Porirua ki Manawatu, Taihape ki Rangipo and Te Paparahi o te Raki.

Although Ms Sinclair studied law as an adult, graduating from Auckland University with a BA/LLB in 1994, which she added to a Diploma in Journalism, the idea of a career in law was sparked at an early age.

“It was pretty much watching my grandmother going through the Māori Land Court at the time. I would have been 10, 11, 12 – something like that. It clicked something was very wrong. Just watching her frustration with the Māori Land Court and its process, because it [Māori Land Court] was a misnomer really. It is a western law construct. It’s based on western law and culture.

“I could work out that things weren’t right. I sensed her frustration and dissatisfaction and I wanted to understand why it seemed she was always annoyed and sad. And it’s the same today for my clients. They have the same frustration.

“I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to understand what happened. As a little kid you think that law is about justice and then you find out it’s actually about man-made rules, and I suppose I must have thought I could change that.”

Some time after leaving school, during which she had worked in journalism among other things, Ms Sinclair finally began studying the law she had thought about as a child.

While at university, she was summer clerking at Brookfields and a Brookfields lawyer, Prue Kapua, was her moving counsel. Following her admission, she joined Brookfields, working with Ms Kapua mainly in environmental law.

From there she went to Youth Law, a Community Law Centre in Auckland, acting for students of all ages on such issues as expulsions, suspensions and family group conferences. While there she was editor of the Youth Law Inc quarterly journal.

Her next move was to Auckland firm Walters Williams and Co, a boutique firm focused on Treaty of Waitangi litigation and Māori Land Court and Environment Court issues.

At Walters Williams she became involved in the firm’s marketing strategy, which was looking at ways to bring in clients.

She proposed that the firm do a clinic on legal issues for television. So she designed a programme called Te Rau O Te Ture (the many aspects of law), which ran on TV’s Marae programme on Sunday mornings.

“It was basically a clinic inviting viewers to write in with their legal questions and I was the presenter and researcher.

“I really enjoyed that work and TVNZ asked if I would stay on as a writer-director, so I left law. Eventually I became an independent film maker and made quite a few films and documentaries.”

Ms Sinclair moved from television to working as a press secretary for Alliance MP Sandra Lee and following that took up a role as a senior policy analyst with Te Puni Kokiri (TPK).

While with TPK, and because she had a Masters in international law and could speak French, she was seconded to the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. As a human rights officer, her work involved looking at indigenous people’s issues.

That was not her introduction to Geneva, however. Before that posting, she travelled there with an NGO, working voluntarily with them to promote indigenous Māori rights in the international fora.

After two years with the UN in Geneva, Ms Sinclair relocated to the UN headquarters in New York. Her role was being part of the secretariat to set up the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is now established.

Following her secondment, she returned to Aotearoa and became manager of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement team in TPK.

Ms Sinclair’s next move, and her last before returning to being a lawyer, was to Noumea University, where she taught comparative law and English literature.

This was first published in LawTalk 852, 10 October 2014, page 8.

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