Wellington barrister Martha Coleman has always been interested in advancing issues of injustice, or what she perceives as injustice, and issues that are important to people who don’t have a strong voice.
Back when she was first studying at university, however, she did not really understand how law could be used to advance such issues.
That was in the 1970s, when she was studying towards a BA at Victoria University. When she first went to university in 1974 she studied legal systems.
“At that point I didn’t really have any understanding of what the options for lawyers might be and working in a private commercial firm didn’t have much appeal. So I didn’t do any more law.”
Instead, she completed her arts degree, graduating BA in 1977.
Early in her career, Ms Coleman worked in trade unions. She joined the Clerical Workers Union in 1979 as a union organiser, becoming the union’s assistant national secretary in 1986.
“I got involved in unions because in my first job out of university – which was in the days before our first anti-discrimination laws had come into effect – there were less favourable employment benefits for women than men within the organisation. I was outraged about this and organised a petition to send to the board to ask them to change their practice. I was told that if I sent off that petition I’d be sacked.
“That experience demonstrated that it was more difficult to achieve things as an individual, rather than in a collective, and I became involved in unions.
“Interestingly one of the things that I did when I was working for the union was to be the advocate for the Law Practitioners Award. In those days people who worked in private law firms were covered by awards which set minimum rates of pay and conditions of employment across whole industries and occupations.
“In the mid-1980s there was a huge movement of young lawyers in Wellington who were concerned about the very low pay for newly graduated barristers and solicitors. I remember coming to a meeting where the top floor [of the New Zealand Law Society building] was absolutely jam packed. They had come from everywhere, the Wairarapa and the Hutt Valley and Wellington to do something about the wages that were paid to young lawyers.
“We were extremely successful in getting something like a 70 or 80% increase in the minimum rates. Some, particularly in the large Wellington firms, were paid more than their colleagues in smaller firms and the provinces, but it was that Wellington group who were most active in pursuing a better deal for their contemporaries.
“Throughout my time in the Clerical Union I was very much involved in the fight for women’s equality at work – the right to pay equity, to proper redress against sexual harassment, to paid parental leave and against other aspects of discrimination in the workplace. These issues were fundamental to the work I was involved in for more than 10 years and I have carried that interest through, particularly pay equity.”
Following the passage of the Employment Equity Act in 1990, Ms Coleman went to work for the Commission for Employment Equity on a project to design the job comparison method for assessing the comparative value of men’s and women’s jobs. After the legislation was repealed she continued to work on equal pay issues, this time in the UK as a researcher carrying out equal value comparisons for applicants with cases in the Employment Tribunal.
Ms Coleman says the most memorable of the cases she worked on was that of Rene Pickstone whose equal pay claim had earlier gone to the House of Lords on a preliminary point of law similar to that arising in the recent Terranova case in New Zealand – whether paying Rene Pickstone the same as a man engaged on the same work would defeat her claim.
Motivation to become a lawyer
“I really enjoyed the quasi legal aspects of being a trade union official – the negotiations, the personal grievances, the odd Employment Court experience, and the work alongside UK barristers, so I decided that I’d like to go back and do law.”
She returned to Victoria University as a mature student, graduating LLB with first class honours in 1996. Ms Coleman would go on to complete an LLM at Yale University in 2000, an experience she describes as “amazing”.
“The emphasis at Yale on issues of justice and policy, rather than black letter law, appealed to me and stood me in good stead for my time later as a public sector lawyer. Following Yale I was very fortunate to be awarded a Human Rights Teaching Fellowship from Columbia University which enabled me to focus further on issues of discrimination and equality – as well as experience the delights of living in New York.”
Her first legal role was as judges’ clerk at the Court of Appeal for two years and then with Chapman Tripp in its litigation department. In fact she spent a year with the firm before and then after her LLM year in the United States.
She then worked for Crown Law for around 14 years. Not only did she get to work on many of the leading human rights cases during her time at Crown Law, that experience, she says, has made her “a much better lawyer than I otherwise would have been.
“I feel like it’s a huge advantage for lawyers generally to have the experience of working for the Crown.
“You might not like everything that governments do but generally speaking they are coming from a point of principle and I think people who are outside of government often don’t really understand that.”
Certainly in her case, working for the Crown has given her a much better understanding of government process. It has also made her aware of the talent that exists inside the public service.
“There are some very interesting jobs and there are some very able lawyers who work for government.
“It is certainly something people should think about, not necessarily for the whole of their career. It is invaluable experience. I feel very fortunate to have had that time and obviously worked on some very interesting and cutting edge cases,” she says.
Ms Coleman has been a barrister sole for 18 months now.
“I really enjoy the flexibility of being your own boss as well as being able to get on with your own work without the responsibilities that go with being part of a big organisation.
“I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying it a lot actually.
“Initially I had an office in Ghuznee Street, which was lovely, but I wasn’t with other lawyers and it was kind of the ‘wrong’ end of town. So I decided I needed to be a bit more orthodox in the way I approached being a barrister. I’ve gone into Mission Chambers and it’s working out really well.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her specialties are human rights and discrimination law, and public law generally. “I do a reasonable amount of refugee and immigration law too, along with some employment law.”
Ms Coleman also sits on the New Zealand Parole Board and is a member of the Legislation and Design Advisory Committee’s external subcommittee.
Ms Coleman remains involved in the pay equity campaign. She belongs to an organisation called the Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay which was set up in 1986, which intervened in the Employment Court in the Terranova case.
“Equal pay is still very much alive as an issue. It’s an issue whose time has finally come. It’s a bit like same sex marriage. It took a while. You don’t hear much opposition to pay equity these days do you?
“Pay equity is all about remedying the undervaluation of women’s work. Classically pay equity issues arise in historically undervalued female dominated occupations, such as the role of care giver, performed by Kristine Barlett in the Terranova case. However, as more women enter the workforce some occupations are also becoming feminised and the rate of pay drops as a consequence. Journalism is one example.
“So it will be interesting to see whether or not the increasing feminisation of the legal profession will lead to a drop in the rates of pay of lawyers. Care needs to be taken to avoid this,” Ms Coleman says.