New Zealand Law Society - NZ Asian Lawyers – Meeting the Needs of a Culturally and Linguistically SuperDiverse Aotearoa

NZ Asian Lawyers – Meeting the Needs of a Culturally and Linguistically SuperDiverse Aotearoa

Aotearoa, New Zealand, is a superdiverse nation with increasing numbers not born here or with their parents not born here. Our Asian population (comprised of first generation migrants and also second or third generation Asians born in NZ) now makes the greatest contribution to our population growth. This correlates closely with a rise in Asian law students and young Asian lawyers. In 2022, one in nine New Zealand lawyers identified as Asian, demonstrating the most significant increase by ethnicity across the legal profession.

President of the NZ Asian Lawyers, Mai Chen, points to the Asian population trajectory as reflected across the justice system on both sides of the courtroom. “Whether it is representing an Asian client or litigating in proceedings involving Asian parties, the need for cultural capability in the New Zealand judicial system is becoming increasingly important for Pakeha and Asian lawyers alike.”

There are increasing numbers of cultural and linguistically diverse parties before the courts. Mai points to the key issues for adjudication of "What did the parties say, what did they do, why did they do it, and issues of credibility. These factors can take on different meanings for Asian clients/parties if you apply a cultural lens context. It may require interpreters and translators, cultural experts and judges and counsel with cultural capability to ensure that equal access to justice is provided to Asian parties and to ensure that there are no miscarriages of justice.

Mai Chen

Asian parties and Asian lawyers also need to work successfully in New Zealand’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon judicial system. “That can be more challenging if you were not born here and the Anglo-Saxon culture is a second culture. It is not instinctual. It needs to be learnt”.

The adversarial system in our courts makes it challenging for judges confronted with parties who are not born here or do not speak the language representing themselves in complex matters concerning money where the only record is WeChat messages as the basis for contractual arrangements. The culturally different modus operandi of Asian parties also makes it difficult to determine whether the dealings are a gift, a trust, a loan. Is the relationship a partnership? Was the person acting as a director?

Cultural capability is essential for lawyers and judges to ensure that all New Zealanders are well served by our legal system and get fairness. “It is also important that Asian lawyers who have cultural competence can provide those valued skills and perspectives to ensure Asian parties are well represented. Many pakeha are doing business with Asian parties. When legal disputes arise, settlement often requires an understanding of why the Asian party is suing and what they will want to settle the matter.”

Enabling this capability is a team of committed and well qualified lawyer volunteers who make up NZ Asian Lawyers. The mission and mandate are clear: To instil confidence in Asian lawyers to be thought leaders and competent contributors (including of Asian capability) to the profession.

Mai says, “We are not the candidates from casting central nor do we always experience being valued for our capabilities irrespective of our ethnicity, which we cannot change.” 

“Being proud of who we are as Asian lawyers and having the confidence to break through any 'bamboo ceilings' and contribute to our optimal capability is what we hope to inspire and equip Asian lawyers to do by establishing NZ Asian Lawyers. Some have strong accents as English is not their first language; some come from countries with very different concepts of the rule of law and business transparency, but most come to this country because they have adopted NZ as their home and want to make a contribution here. NZ Asian Lawyers exists because of the great support we have had from all parts of the legal system and profession including the judiciary who have kindly given up their scarce time to speak at our seminars (including the Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann and many heads of bench (Chief Judge Taumaunu, Chief Judge Isaac, Chief Judge Fox, Chief Judge Inglis, and Justices Glazebrook, Joe Williams, Courtney, Venning, Whata, Palmer, Powell, Fitzgerald, Judge Doogan and Judge Te Kani Williams. The NZ Bar Association and its Presidents (Justice Paul Radich KC and Maria Dew KC) have also partnered with NZ Asian Lawyers and NZLS Presidents Tiana Epati, Jacqueline Lethbridge, Frazer Barton have also been great supporters.”

NZ Asian Lawyers welcomes any lawyer whether in private or government practice, whether in-house or in academia. It also welcomes Asian law students and honorary members of any ethnicity who are supporters and friends of Asian lawyers. Member benefits include networking and educational events, seminars, webinars, mentoring and cultural wellness programmes. It also includes the chance to influence by contributing to the voice NZ Asian Lawyers is accorded in many forums about the unique experiences and competencies of Asian lawyers.

Further information about the people and work of NZ Asian Lawyers can be found here: