New Zealand Law Society - Helping people through the system

Helping people through the system

As a Māori working in the criminal justice system “it is important to help people who become involved with the system work through it,” says Riki Donnelly, who is a Director of Preston Russell in Invercargill.

Nā Frank Neill

As a Māori working in the criminal justice system “it is important to help people who become involved with the system work through it,” says Riki Donnelly, who is a Director of Preston Russell in Invercargill.

Around two-thirds of Mr Donnelly’s work is as a Crown prosecutor and he conducts both jury trials and regulatory matters.

Of Ngāti Porou descent, Mr Donnelly finds himself prosecuting in a system where a disproportionate number of Māori are involved as defendants, as witnesses and as victims.

Prosecutors, he says, can do a number of things to help the system “overcome its historic institutional racism, and the disenfranchisement of those that appear before it”.

For example, prosecutors can:

  • take a less adversarial role when it comes to sentencings – looking to rehabilitation and what can be done to help the defendant not appear before the Court again, while recognising the views of victims;
  • be proactive in working with families (and the wider support network) of defendants as well as complainants/victims;
  • try and create a less sterile and alien environment for those who interface with the criminal justice system; and
  • be knowledgeable about programmes and support available.

One very important thing prosecutors can do is acknowledge the people involved in a case, whether they be victims, defendants, witnesses or support people.

“You can acknowledge them in their own right and try to uphold their mana in a system that is quite foreign and a system that can be viewed as ‘the state’s system’ and not ‘my system’,” he says.

“I always try to acknowledge people coming to court and those that support them: to be considerate and do my best to respect the dignity of the people appearing before the courts, and those who have come to support them.”

Since starting work as a Crown prosecutor, Mr Donnelly has noticed that there are more and more people talking about Māori issues in the law, not just in the area of criminal justice.

“There are a lot of amazing Māori lawyers who are really good at articulating and delving into the issues. I really enjoy listening to and reading what they have to say on a range of legal issues relevant to Māori.”

The disproportionate number of Māori who are imprisoned and who are the victims of crime is a “huge issue, and a lot of people are looking at ways to make it better”.

Mr Donnelly mentioned the work of Sir Kim Workman, knighted for his long and outstanding service to prisoner welfare and the justice sector.

He is also interested in the lessons that can be learned from the Marae Court set up after the Christchurch earthquake. In that regard, he particularly agreed with the comments of Justice Joe Williams that: “The experience of using Ngā Hau e Whā Marae as a courtroom in Christchurch shows how just changing the setting can make a positive difference, although I would be disappointed if we just changed the surroundings and didn’t look at the process within.”

And they are just two of the many voices talking about how to make the criminal justice system better.

Emphasis on rehabilitation

In his time as a Crown prosecutor he has seen some positive changes.

Mr Donnelly notes the greater emphasis on rehabilitation, the greater emphasis on restorative justice and the fact that the system now gives greater prominence to the voice of victims of crime, matters he believes are all positives.

There are many more developments that could enhance the system, however, he says.

One of the things he is looking forward to is the Supreme Court decision on the Ellis case, in particular what the Court says about tikanga.

“If there is an acknowledgement from the highest court in the land that tikanga is a real and powerful force in New Zealand’s criminal law, it would be a huge step in the development of the law. It will be really interesting to see exactly what the decision says when it comes out.”

It was both amazing and uplifting that the Court was considering the place of tikanga in the criminal law.

“I think it is really significant that it is a non-Māori [Peter Ellis] who is having his appeal argued on the basis it should continue even though he is deceased, and his lawyers are relying on the first law of the land, tikanga, in doing so.”

When he was at secondary school, Mr Donnelly had no thoughts of becoming a lawyer. In fact looking back at his school journals, it was clear that he wanted to become a research scientist.

At university, however, he began studying law while working on a BSc in psychology.

“I started doing law but didn’t do very well,” he says. That changed however, when he moved to Victoria University, and he graduated with honours.

After seriously considering studying clinical psychology as a post graduate, he ended up opting for law.

“I liked the challenge of the law,” he says.

Coming from a family that was “big on speaking” – his hapū are Te Whānau a Rakairoa and Te Whānau a Pokai-Pohatu – “I liked the idea of going to Court and oral arguments.”

After graduating, he travelled to the Netherlands, the UK and elsewhere in Europe for a year, then joined Preston Russell in Invercargill.

After three years, he moved to Rishworth, Wall and Mathieson in Gisborne. Among the lawyers he worked with there was Tiana Epati, the New Zealand Law Society’s President.

During that time he did some criminal defence work, as well as general civil litigation.

Just under three years after joining Rishworth Wall and Mathieson, Preston Russell offered him a partnership, so he moved back to Invercargill at the beginning of 2016.

Mr Donnelly is now a sports spectator, but when he was young he played both rugby and squash. He was selected for the New Zealand secondary schools squash team.

Married with three children, his main interest now outside work is doing things with his family, particularly taking them back to the East Coast, which is his children’s “place of origin”. ▪

Lawyer Listing for Bots