New Zealand Law Society - Tikanga in 2020: An interview with Natalie Coates

Tikanga in 2020: An interview with Natalie Coates

Tikanga in 2020: An interview with Natalie Coates

For the Whakatāne based Kāhui Legal Partner 2020, hasn’t only been dominated by Covid. This year will be the one she remembers for the case she hopes will significantly progress the recognition of tikanga in our legal system. Natalie Coates was at the forefront of making New Zealand legal history this year when the Supreme Court allowed former Christchurch Civic Creche worker Peter Ellis’s appeal against charges of sexual offending to continue, despite the fact he died in 2019.

What’s your experience of 2020 been like?

2020 for me has been a huge year of highs and lows for so many reasons – both professionally and personally. One of the highlights was being involved in the Ellis case that shone the spotlight on an issue that I have long been passionate about – the intersection between tikanga and the state legal system. The fact that the Supreme Court asked for submissions on the relevance of tikanga and that the Crown accepted as a base proposition that it was relevant, shows how far we have come on these matters.

In terms of the lows – Covid was a battle for everyone and has made this a remarkable year to live through. I also ruptured my achilles trying to relive my 18-year-old soccer self so I had a moon boot on for part of the year and am still going through a slow recovery period. It makes keeping up with my energetic three year old a challenge.

Why was the Ellis case so critical?

Although the Supreme Court have allowed the Appeal to proceed posthumously, the Court has not yet published their reasons. So we are still not sure what they are going to say. But I think whatever happens, we’re on a journey and a nation-building exercise and the Ellis case is but one small part of that.

Tikanga is the first law of Aotearoa. In the last 40 years we have moved on from the period of rejection and active suppression, have accepted that tikanga is part of the common law, and are now engaged in testing the bounds of that recognition on a case by case basis. The challenge going forward more broadly is how tikanga can inform the state legal system in ways that are genuine, meaningful and culturally safe.

During the hearing earlier this year you used the analogy of state law and tikanga being like a whariki (woven mat) – can you explain what you meant?

I drew on a well-quoted saying by Potatau Te Wherowhero who at his coronation as the first Māori King in 1857 said (in te reo) there is but one eye of the needle through which the white, the black and the red threads must pass.

I invited the Court to conceptualise the law as a whariki (woven mat) and themselves as one of the kairaranga (weavers) that develop and add to this rich tapestry of law. I argued that when they are engaged in that task, not only can they draw on the thread of law as it derived from England but also to tikanga Māori.

Sometimes people talk about a blending of the laws, but visually I didn’t think that quite hit the mark. It conjures up a mixing and dilution into one big messy picture. The weaving metaphor worked better because the threads retain their true colours.

I also thought it worked because the whariki represents the fabric of law in Aotearoa more broadly, and is not just limited to the state legal system. In that sense, not only are the Courts and Paraliament weavers but so is society and Māori communities themselves.

This has always been the case, but I thought it was highlighted last year when there was the eruption of Whakaari – and the local iwi placed a number of rāhui that prohibited people from going into the sea in peak summer. I was really proud of our local community as it was universally abided by. We didn’t need Parliament or the Courts to say it or enforce it. The rāhui was a form of law that, for lots of different reasons, was followed.

How does this year and the Ellis case in particular fit with your journey into the law?

With the Ellis case I feel like I was just at the right place at the right time. The relevance of tikanga would not have been identified, nor the argument we ran have been made, even ten years earlier. I feel like we are practicing law in a particular context at the moment.

There are lots of things that go into this including: increasing legislative references to tikanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi; the Supreme Court affirming that tikanga is part of the common law; a post-Treaty settlement era where the Crown-Māori relationship is being reset and Māori continue to strengthen and rebuild. Tikanga aspects are now taught at all law schools and there are more Māori lawyers and Judges then ever before.

All of these things are culminating in an exciting time to be in the law – as well as a scary one. I think that the navigation of this complex intersection between tikanga and the state legal system is one of the major challenges of the moment: for the judiciary, for the law profession and for society.

As a young Māori student what was your experience of going to Dunedin to study law at the University of Otago?

Going to Otago was a huge culture shock. I went from a small Māori town to Knox College, Dunedin where I was one of the few Māori there. I took about six months to get over being homesick and adjust to scarfie life. But I was so glad I went through that experience, it taught me invaluable life lessons and I have some amazing friends from that time.

I was also fortunate to have Professor Jacinta Ruru as one of my lecturers. As a young Māori woman I could see a bit of myself reflected in her. She was incredible then, and still is now. In fact, she definitely remains a role model (and friend) to this day.

And after law school – what happened then?

When I finished law school I initially decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer! I did a very ill-timed OE to London during the global recession, returning to New Zealand after a year or so to take up a short-term junior role with Aurere Law under Annette Sykes. I then went to Harvard before returning to work as a lecturer at the University of Auckland, Faculty of Law.

I loved teaching but in 2014 I decided to try my hand at practise. I joined Kāhui Legal because it aligns with my interest and I supported the kaupapa of the firm which is to use the law and push the boundaries of it in ways that go towards advancing the well-being of Māori.

I keep a hand in teaching, doing the odd seminar. I think teaching has influenced my work as a practitioner. One of the subjects I taught before I went into practice was jurisprudence – in that subject you are engaging with theories of law and fundamental questions around what is the law and how it works. Although on the face of it, it seems theoretical, when you are working on the hard cases it has practical application. I draw on those ideas as a lawyer.

You mention Harvard University – what was that like?

I love academia and learning in general. It gives you the freedom and space to think and challenge and explore ideas. So I loved that year at Harvard because it allowed me to do that more.

Harvard itself has marketed itself exceptionally well. I had applied on a whim and when accepted I was naturally terrified that I would be completely out of my league. But what I found is that everyone there is human like the rest of us. It took a bit of time to get used to the Americans that fight each other for air-time in class (our style is to tend to hang back unless asked). But we can foot it amongst the best and in some ways we are more advanced. I was disappointed with how little focus they had on indigenous issues there.

One of the most valuable things for me was the exposure to people from different countries. I had friends from Poland, Syria, Brazil, India all over Europe. Having that level of concentrated diversity of background, culture and thought was a privilege.

2020 is nearly over – what’s 2021 looking like for you?

First of all I’m really looking forward to Christmas and having a break with my family!

After that 2021 for me is really more of the same when it comes to work. I’ll be continuing to work for our clients, to do the best I can for them. It’s a huge privilege to be able to work on issues that I care about.

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