New Zealand Law Society - Inspiring indigenous legal education for Aotearoa

Inspiring indigenous legal education for Aotearoa

Invercargill based Riki Donnelly tells us about his work as a Crown prosecutor and what prosecutors can do to help the justice system “overcome its historic institutional racism and the disenfranchisement of those that appear before it”.

Nā Morwenna Grills

Jacinta Ruru made history when she became Aotearoa’s first Māori Law Professor in 2016. Nearly four years later she remains our only Māori Law Professor. And sadly, the law is not unusual in the limited number of Māori academics working in our tertiary sector.

“There have been some really important small advances over a number of years,” Professor Ruru tells LawTalk.

“But the whole system within the tertiary sector, and then more broadly amongst even the legal profession, that change is incremental but very very slow.

“The system works against Māori in many many ways. A way to help penetrate into that is to go right back to think about how we teach law, how we privilege and prioritise the story of law and the skills in law to our first year students onwards.”

Professor Jacinta Ruru
Professor Jacinta Ruru

Professor Ruru and 15 other academics have come together in a ground-breaking collaboration to make the case for that thinking to be done, not just by them but by all of us. Together they have authored the issues paper Strengthening the ability for Māori law to become a firm foundational component of a legal education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“We’ve never collectively co-authored a piece of work like this issues paper before, all contributing into one project. But it’s really important to have this approach. The whole project is built on collaboration with the release of the issues paper, then asking people what they think of the concepts we’re exploring before we then start to develop models for what indigenous legal education in Aotearoa might look like.”

Within the issues paper the authors make the point that the drive to thinking about whether Māori law should be taught as a compulsary part of the LLB degree is in part coming from the legal profession itself.

“We think our Courts are calling for this as well as Parliament. Our Courts are now recognising that Māori law is part of our common law and Parliament itself is passing more and more legislation that is directing decision-makers to have regards to elements of Māori law through tikanga.

“Over the last 30 years there has been more willingness to look to how Māori law can help resolve tension, disputes and help guide decision-making and we believe our legal education needs to catch up with that.

“We need to think more about how we can prepare our law graduates for a legal system in Aotearoa that is much more willing to engage with Māori law.”

The issues paper calls for a legal profession that is training students to work in a bijural, bicultural and bilingual Aotearoa New Zealand legal system. But what does that mean?

The paper outlines that a bijural legal education recognises that in Aotearoa we have two operating legal systems: Māori Law, founded on kaupapa tuku iho and tikanga Māori, as well as the imported law which is the dominant one. The major change will be recognising that both systems are valid and that Māori law is taught in a manner that adheres to Māori transmission methods of knowledge.

“When we think about how we can teach Māori law and our legal system we have to think about the sources of Māori law – it is a different legal system to the one inherited from England. It doesn’t have the history of the statute. But that’s not the only way of constructing a legal system, and for us, if we think about how we teach Māori law we have to give integrity to the Māori world view and the Māori way of understanding the world. Our stories of our land, rivers, mountains and who we are as a people are really important for understanding that.

A bicultural legal education implements structures, develops processes and provides resources grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi, including the employment of Māori, and sharing of resources, leadership and decision-making with iwi, hāpu and Māori academic staff.

A bilingual legal education uses te reo Māori broadly in general teaching and specifically in relation to Māori law concepts and principles such that all students have a working knowledge of Māori Law in te reo Māori at the time of graduation. Where students are fluent in te reo Māori, they should be easily able to learn and be assessed in te reo Māori.

If it’s hard to imagine a bijural, bicultural and bilingual legal education then no look no further than Canada for inspiration. There universities are well ahead of us in implementing indigenous legal education. In fact, Professor Ruru warns that even Australia is starting to leave us behind.

“We are falling behind other nations. Canada has made leaps and bounds. For example, at Victoria University on Vancouver Island students can do an LLB Indigenous law degree. They come out schooled in both the federal state legal system and the indigenous legal system. Parts of that degree involve students being taken out onto the indigenous lands and taught by indigenous elders.

A bicultural legal education implements structures, develops processes and provides resources grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi

“Even Australia – while they still have very low numbers of indigenous students and teachers, at a federal level they are recognising these issues and have published a paper calling for change across the Law Schools.”

The issues paper by Professor Ruru and her colleagues is available on the Borrin Foundation website. The next stage of the research will involve consultation.

Professor Ruru says they want to hear from a broad cross-section of the legal community.

“We want to hear people’s views from the profession, law students, the public. We are also particularly interested to talking with mana whenua – we want to hear the risks and opportunities they see about entrusting Universities and Law Schools to teach their laws.

“We want to hear from our legal profession how much of a need there is for students to come out schooled on Māori law.

“We also want to test if we’ve gone far enough, or too far? We know calling for this bijural, bicultural and bilingual system will take many years. It is a big aspiration that we are mapping out.”

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