New Zealand Law Society - From isolated island to New Zealand’s biggest city

From isolated island to New Zealand’s biggest city

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From little things big things grow and when a person grows up on isolated Motiti Island in the Bay of Plenty – where there was no power or sealed roads and just a handful of people living – only to end up an associate at an Auckland law firm, that old saying appears true to life.

Ihipera Peters’ road to the law is a story entwined in both the Māori and Samoan cultures.

Her father is Samoan and a panel beater and her mother is Māori and a school teacher.

She was admitted in 2010 and was recently promoted to associate at Wackrow Williams and Davies Limited.

“From a young age, my father always encouraged me to become either a doctor or a lawyer. As I grew up and got some world experience, I realised a career that could involve blood and guts wasn’t my thing, and so I fell into the path of doing a law degree,” she says.

Growing up on Motiti Island

Born in Wellington, Ihipera Ulu (as her name was before she married) moved to Tauranga, but spent most of her weekends and school holidays on the largely uninhabited Motiti Island when she was seven. The relocation was about following her mother’s school teaching career.

But life in Auckland is a far cry from life at Motiti Island where the supermarket was the fresh kaimoana (or seafood) hooked from the waters surrounding the 10 square kilometre land.

“It was pretty basic on Motiti Island with no power or town supply water. Everyone had their own little homestead and we would travel back and forth to what we called the mainland – Tauranga. Being grounded in those routes and growing up in that island environment makes you appreciate what you have now.

“It’s always refreshing when I go back to the island. I don’t go there often enough because my work keeps me pretty busy but everyone knows everyone on Motiti and when I do it is to re-energise with whanau and friends,” she says.

When the container ship the Rena crashed onto Astrolabe reef five years ago causing one of the country’s worst maritime disasters, Mrs Peters was travelling to Motiti Island each weekend, not to assist as a lawyer but to help with the clean-up.

“Kaimoana is our food basket, our lifeline and when that happened, my husband and I were there consecutive weekends and there’s still ongoing problems there. Some whanau won’t collect kaimoana from the northern end which is closest to the reef because some kina is still black inside. They refuse to eat it,” she says.

Being a sleeves-rolled-up person is a work philosophy Mrs Peters has carried into her law practice.

“I like to be hands on and on the ground,” she says.

Heritage and culture play a big role in her day-to-day work, which involves the Māori Land Court and Treaty of Waitangi.

“It’s a large focus of my work but also working with Māori in other areas of law too. I wanted to help Māori and Pacific island people achieve justice,” she says.

Mrs Peters possesses an invaluable communication tool in that she speaks both Māori and Samoan fluently, as they were her first languages when growing up.

“My mother only ever spoke Māori to me, and my father, Samoan.” Their theory was that the rest of the world could teach her English, and that proved true as the first word she uttered was dog – an English word.

“My parents were pretty amused by that,” she says.

But fast forward more than 20 years and it’s the indigenous languages that play an important role in her practice.

“With Māori clients especially, if I get a sense that they can speak te reo, I’ll speak Māori to them and straight away a shield comes down and they feel more comfortable because I’ve made the effort. They often assume I am younger than I am, so speaking Māori tends to come as a surprise to them.

“They’ll open up a bit more and perhaps talk about things more openly than if I spoke English. There are a lot of similarities in both cultures I come from,” she says.

An obligation to represent Māori and Samoan people?

“Yes and I think it also drives my motivation to be able to help my people – both Māori and Pacific Island. To be able to give back to them by using my skills to benefit them.

“There is no pressure put on me that I must do this. I actually want to do it. There are a lot of similarities and differences to both cultures,” she says.

Helping and mentoring her people was going on for some time before Mrs Peters began practising law.

She worked as the Pouāwhina Māori in the Law Faculty at Auckland University, managing the Māori academic programme, straight after completing her law degree.

“That role could be a bit of a counselling job – encouraging students when times were tough – not that dissimilar to practising law from time to time,” she says.

Life outside law

With a demanding legal job and having just been made an associate, life away from work is precious and Mrs Peters says she tries to spend as much time with her family as possible.

“Outdoors mostly but it can be limited to be honest. My husband (who works in the construction industry) and I have a three-year-old daughter and we also are the caregivers for his youngest sister who is 14. We’ve looked after her for about three years. She is basically a whāngai daughter and sister-in-law at the same time,” she says.

Mrs Peters is also involved in property conveyancing, trusts, wills and estates and relationship property work.

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