By Geoff Adlam
The new Chief Justice of Sāmoa came to New Zealand for education when he was aged seven. Half a century later, aged 58, he sees his return to live in the country of his birth as the next step of a completion of a journey.
“I need to complete that journey and go back to Samoa, to see to what extent I can contribute to Samoa in its development, having taken on board all of the gifts and taonga that I’ve picked up in New Zealand,” Satiu Simativa Perese said before returning to his homeland.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant a planned swearing-in was delayed by a month, but on 12 June in Vailele he was sworn in by Sāmoa’s Head of State, His Highness Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II. The ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, the Speaker of Parliament, Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi, members of Parliament and Cabinet, members of the judiciary, the diplomatic corps and his Sāmoa-based family and guests.
He follows the 27-year tenure of Patu Tiava’asu’e Falefatu Sapolu who was appointed in 1992 and was the just the second Sāmoan-born Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Samoa.
“The method by which the judiciary maintains the integrity of its impartiality is to apply the rule of law and speak through its judgments,” Chief Justice Satiu said in his first address as head of Sāmoa’s judiciary.
In an indirect reference to the current constitutional arguments in Sāmoa, he said the judiciary should only very rarely engage in public discourse on issues that may ultimately require their interpretation and determination.
“When parties come to judges for determination, they should be confident that a judge will act with impartial fairness,” he said.
The start of the journey
Satiu Simativa Perese was born in Magiagi, a village in the north of the island of Upolu. His father was Satiu Fea Leasuasu Perese of Salimu, Fagaloa and his mother was Ulufafo Samau of Tanugamanono. His father passed away when he was aged three.
“Towards the end of 1969 when I was seven, I said to my Mum that I would like to go to New Zealand; I’d like to see what it looks like. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was sent to New Zealand to go to school.”
His first New Zealand residence was in Napier with his maternal aunt and her husband, in the decade from 1970.
“I loved Napier. It was a great place. We were one of about half a dozen Sāmoans living in Napier at the time and it allowed me to enjoy the community and meeting lots of palagi people. I built great friendships that have lasted the years, and I’m still friends with people I went to school with.”
He left to go to university, but not to study law.
“I’d always been interested in economics, so I went to Massey University and started off a business studies degree. However, a couple of years into it I became a broadcaster. I was the first Sāmoan or Pacific person to have gone through the Radio New Zealand Announcing School.”
By then he was married to Lucia Angelina. The first posting was to Gisborne for half a year, then to Whanganui, and then to Wellington “so that I could work on the Radio New Zealand network to do newsreading and continuity announcing.”
Law by day, radio by night
Law, however, had always been in his mind. After a holiday in Sāmoa, in February 1986 he returned to Wellington and sought a special dispensation from the Victoria University Dean of Law to enrol late.
“He looked at me, and gave me a go. And that’s how I came to study law. I worked at night for most of my degree and went to law school during the day. I used to work on Radio NZ’s community network. In those days Radio NZ had all its community stations link into one programme from about 7 or 10 o’clock at night depending on the area. We would host all the Radio NZ stations and keep the signal going out until 5 in the morning when the now-departed Merv Smith used to take over from 5 to 6. I’d hand over to him and then Radio NZ would break back out into the local stations again.
“I would do the night shift and then turn up to do Legal System during the day. It was a bit of hard going for a while.”
Finishing his LLB, he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in June 1990. His first job in law was with the Crown Law Office. He started with John Oliver and Keith Robertson with a focus on arbitration, and then moved into (later QC) Mary Scholtens’ commercial regulatory team. He worked on tax cases and was also involved in asbestos-related litigation around the important McKenzie v Attorney-General  NZLR 506 and  2 NZLR 14 decisions.
“I really enjoyed working with some really great lawyers who taught me a lot about the law and the practice of law. It was an honour to junior Mary Scholtens and the Solicitor-General in the Court of Appeal or High Court. I certainly learned a lot about litigation while working for Crown Law.”
Off to Auckland
Satiu Perese and his wife moved to Auckland in 1993 for family reasons. For a promising litigator it was an opportune time, as the 1993 General Election saw Labour candidate Richard Northey take the Onehunga electorate by a very slim margin. National challenged the result, arguing that a number of those on the roll weren’t entitled to be there. Togiatama v Parker  2 NZLR 347 was a great opportunity for Satiu.
“It was one of those sorts of cases that underpins the motivation to do the law degree to be able to contribute and make a difference. It was one of those cases where it was important to stand up and give a voice to the voiceless. All of the persons for whom objections against their inclusion on the Electoral Roll had been filed had one thing in common – they all had Pacific-looking names. However, it turned out that although they all had Pacific-looking names; in fact some were Māori, some were palagi New Zealand women married to a Pacific people. It was an honour to represent the four hundred-odd people whose eligibility to be enrolled were challenged.”
Then to New York
While he was at Crown Law, Satiu Perese had read about Pauline Kingi who had returned from studying at Harvard after receiving a Harkness Fellowship.
“I thought, well, that’s the way to do it, so I made an application at the end of 1994 and after being interviewed by a panel led by Sir David Beattie I was awarded a fellowship which allowed me to study in New York at Columbia University Law School.
“I was accompanied by my wife and our three-month-old daughter. It was life-changing to be frank. It gave me a completely different view of the law and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity just to spend a year studying and not having to worry about doing the shifts at Radio NZ, but just to focus on the law. It was an amazing year.”
He ended the year with an LLM with a Certificate of Achievement with Honours in Foreign and International Law.
“I wanted to do something that was completely different and so focused on international law. I did topics like international environmental law, trade, and international commercial arbitration.”
A year in New York was a real bonus.
“Catching the subway and getting around New York. I actually found New Yorkers really friendly people and I really enjoyed it. I was often mistaken for being a Hispanic and latinos would walk up and speak Spanish to me.”
Back to New Zealand and still fired up about international law, he had plans to study for a doctorate.
“I thought that I would have a go at being a barrister as I thought I would have more opportunity to do a doctorate as a barrister than I would as a staff solicitor or associate or partner in a firm. But it didn’t work out that way as I ended up getting a lot of work, paid and unpaid.
“In those early years as a barrister I gave it everything I had. I really became involved in terms of cases, a lot of church disputes and instructions from Pacific people. I did a cross-section of other work from matters involving companies right through to community-based work.”
His long career in the law has also seen him involved in many legal and community roles. He served as a member of the Human Rights Review Tribunal, from 2003 to 2009.
“It was fascinating work and I worked with some really good people like Royden Hindle – who was the chief at the time – and Deborah Clapshaw. The three of us would often get together for on the papers work. I also was a District Inspector of Mental Health for a few years and a Youth Court advocate from 1998 to 2003.”
His announcing skills saw him called on to act as MC for conferences for organisations such as the Youth Court, Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, and Children, Youth and Family international conferences, Counties Manukau District Health Board and the National Pacific Radio Trust (of which he was a founding trustee). He was one of the founding members of the Pacific Lawyers Association and its first President, from 2000 to 2002.
As a barrister his areas of practice were wide, including judicial review, human rights, immigration, employment, commercial litigation, property and land law, charitable trusts, professional negligence and criminal law. He has appeared at all levels in New Zealand’s courts. This included a successful appeal in the Supreme Court in Almond v Read  NZSC 80, where the court overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision to refuse to extend time to file an appeal.
Chief Justice Satiu was admitted to the bar in Sāmoa in 1999.
“I wanted to be admitted while my Mum was still alive. She died in 2005. It was a very proud day to be admitted in Sāmoa in 1999, and to be admitted by the person I am replacing, by Chief Justice Sapolu who has left a major legacy as far as transforming the judiciary is concerned.”
He has conducted criminal and complex fraud trials and land law cases in Sāmoa and has also appeared in the Cook Islands on a case-by-case basis.
His wife died in January 2010 of leukemia. The couple had two daughters.
“For the last 10 years my first priority has been my children and looking after them and their needs and being able to spend time with them. We’ve had a great friendship and they’ve been at St Mary’s College in Auckland. My oldest girl was a head prefect there in 2013, and my youngest is a couple of years younger. She was a prefect there a couple of years later.
“They’re both going to stay in New Zealand. My older girl has applied for a job in Christchurch which hopefully fits in with her art history degree and my baby girl wants to enrol in university in Auckland and start her own business in due course.”
Outside the law
Asked about his interests outside law, the new Chief Justice says “it’s just family. Having time for family.”
“If there’s time, I spend it with family. I’m also Catholic. I converted to Catholicism in the last five years. I grew up as a protestant, but having been involved on the board of trustees for St Mary’s College and seeing what the college did for my daughters after my wife died, I became involved in the Catholic faith and I converted. I was heavily involved with the Church, being on the national committee for safeguarding professional standards. I’ve also worked as a catechist. I was a reader of scripture on Sunday as part of a roster: those are my interests – my family and my church or my church and my family.”
Chief Justice of Sāmoa
For many, assuming the highest judicial role without having previously been a member of the judiciary would be daunting. New Zealand, of course had a history of appointing its Chief Justice straight from the bar until Sir Thomas Eichelbaum in 1989.
“I recognise that there are real challenges, but there are probably not a lot of issues that I can’t get up to speed with quite quickly with the right support and the right networks of people. Sitting on the Human Rights Tribunal broke the ice with respect to a quasi-judicial position, and having an understanding of the conflicts and issues from the past roles gives me a great insight into organisational dynamics. That will help in terms of assisting with the management of judges and court resources.
“I came to New Zealand for education, and I think I need to complete that journey and go back to Sāmoa, to see to what extent I can contribute to Sāmoa having taken on board all of the gifts and taonga that I’ve picked up in New Zealand.”
“The Chief Justice’s role is a calling and I see there will be challenges. This is the most important job I’ll have as a lawyer. It’s an opportunity to use all my skills and experience and hopefully do a good job.”
Sāmoan Head of State His Highness Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II and the new Chief Justice.
From second left to right: The Speaker of the House, the Prime Minister, the Head of State, Satiu Simativa Perese Chief Justice of Sāmoa, and Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga.