2021 marks the 20th year of the Pacific Lawyers Association. New co-Presidents, Ataga’i Esera and Joseph Xulue are excited about the prospect of moving into spaces that were previously not as accessible. Read about their plans to continue to build and strengthen the Pacific legal community, and the shortcomings of the label of “Pasifika”.
The Pacific Lawyers Association celebrates its 20th anniversary in October this year. It was established to promote and respond to matters relevant to Pacific lawyers and to Pacific peoples and has members spanning law students and graduates, lawyers and members of the Judiciary. In October last year the PLA became a permanent member of the New Zealand Law Society Council.
Recently Kōrero Mō Te Ture | LawTalk caught up with the new co-Presidents, Ataga’i Esera and Joseph Xulue, to hear what they have planned for the Association and what drives them in the legal profession.
Tell us about your journey into the legal profession
Joseph: Bozu së (greetings) I’m an indigenous Kanak from New Caledonia. I was born in the capital city Nouméa and my family moved to Aotearoa, New Zealand in 1998. I grew up in Papatoetoe in South Auckland and I studied Law and Commerce at the University of Auckland.
I was admitted to the bar in 2017 and became the first indigenous Kanak person to do so. I started practising in 2017 initially in the Auckland Public Defence Service office.
After that I moved into prosecutions joining the Office of the Crown Solicitor at Manukau – Kayes Fletcher Walker, where I have worked as a Crown Prosecutor for 3 ½ years. The firm is based in South Auckland, only about a 10 minute drive from where I grew up. It’s a firm that is focussed on reflecting the South Auckland community it serves, prosecuting crime in a firm but fair way and doing publicly important work to a high standard.
One of the key reasons I pursued a career in law was to help indigenous Kanaks in New Caledonia. Kanaks have wanted independence from the French Republic for decades so I saw law as a conduit to help fight for Kanak independence – that is – it would provide me with the necessary skill set, knowledge and qualifications to be an advocate for Kanak people.
Growing up in South Auckland has meant that my reasons for pursuing a career in law also expanded to include the want to reform our criminal justice system to reduce the harm it causes to Māori and Pasifika families and communities.
Ata: I was born in Whanganui, my mother of NZ European descent and my father of Samoan descent. My parents have both been amazing role models in terms of being people who have chased their dreams and served their communities.
My journey into the legal profession was not what you would call conventional. Law School was a place where I landed, more by default than design, at a time when admission was restricted. At that time, my brother was completing his law degree, and would be the first to tell you that I didn’t necessarily apply myself as well as I could have.
The profession was not one to which I was naturally drawn, nor one into which I saw myself fitting. I completed my undergraduate degree in accounting. I then took up an opportunity to teach English in Oita, Japan, an experience which I cannot recommend highly enough.
Upon returning to NZ I practised as a financial accountant, only to find that similar to my first round of law school, it was not something that motivated me to get up in the morning. In 2009, with some encouragement from my grandfather and my brother, I made the decision to return to Law School and was admitted in 2010.
Over the past decade I have predominantly practised in the area of Family Law in Porirua, apart from a brief stint in South Auckland. I am currently a Director at Family Law Specialists in Porirua and the Family Law Section representative for Porirua. A large part of my practice is acting as Lawyer for Child and I truly consider it a privilege to advocate for some of the most vulnerable.
Does having a shared cultural understanding make a difference?
Ata: A shared cultural understanding does make a difference, to clients, to those engaging with lawyers and with the justice system, and to our community at large. Pacific lawyers are still rare, making up approximately 6% of the profession.
Across the Pacific the notion of communal responsibility is something which is more of a ‘norm’ for us. When we succeed, we do so on the shoulders of the giants before us.
When we meet other Pacific people in our professional capacity, whether they are other lawyers, parties to proceedings, professionals or others engaged in and around the process, there is an immediate sense of connection. There is a sense of mutual appreciation and respect for each other and each other’s culture.
The responsibility lies across the profession, to do what we can as a collective to endeavour to be part of a profession that reflects the community that it serves.
Joseph: I agree that a shared cultural understanding makes a difference, and especially when that cultural understanding supports and brings about change to publicly-important institutions.
At a Crown Solicitor’s office (for example), where you have a real responsibility to the community you serve (many of whom are of Māori or Pasifika descent), I believe this cultural understanding is particularly important.
Having Māori or Pasifika lawyers in a Crown Solicitor’s office, offers a really important and nuanced perspective to the decisions that ultimately affect those in the community, decisions relating to aspects such as charging decisions, appraising matters personal to defendants at the sentencing stage or even how we proceed with a matter.
Within the Crown Law network there aren’t really many Māori or Pasifika prosecutors so we’re very lucky in my office to have a relatively diverse representation of Māori and Pasifika solicitors in a publicly-focused institution, in South Auckland.
I hope this representation will increase across the country as it’s critical to making a criminal justice system that is about the people who are really affected by the decisions that we make as lawyers.
On becoming co-presidents of the Pacific Lawyers Association
We are in a very fortunate position. The combined effect of having both Tania Sharkey as an impactful former PLA President and Tiana Epati as a trailblazing current Law Society President, the PLA has a much more pronounced presence within the legal community.
This means we can now offer more opportunities for mentoring, continuing legal education, and collegial events to Pasifika lawyers, university students and high school students. It also means that we can better support other functions of our association, such as research and law reform.
We are excited about the prospect of moving into spaces that were previously not as accessible, and continuing to further, and bring needed attention to, the needs of the Pacific legal community and our community as a whole.
A key development is our increasing role in a range of working groups with the Courts, the Ministry of Justice and the Law Commission. We are contacted on a regular basis by a range of organisations both within the legal community and the community at large, seeking our views on issues that impact Pacific communities.
The PLA has an Outreach committee with a view to reaching as many local high schools as possible, to speak with students and answer any questions they may have about a career in the law.
What are some of the key pieces of work coming up for the Association?
Ata: Alert Levels permitting, we have our 20th Anniversary Dinner coming up on Friday 1 October 2021 at Okahu, on Auckland’s Mission Bay. We also have a backup dinner date of Saturday 6th of November 2021, should alert levels prevent the dinner from proceeding on 1 October.
The PLA is continuing to grow our mentoring programme. This is especially important to connect our practitioners and for senior law students who are preparing to enter the workforce. We have a strong student membership and from the PLAs perspective it’s important that students can have the opportunity to engage in mentoring relationships with those in practice to build their confidence.
Joseph: Further examples of some of the PLA’s key pieces of work include: the running (and funding) of the annual Pacific Issues Moot at the University of Auckland, and the PLA prize for legal writing which looks to encourage Pasifika students to submit innovative pieces of writing that touch on the issues of Pacific peoples both here in New Zealand and in the South Pacific.
We are also in the process of expanding our legal writing competition to our out of Auckland membership. Similarly, we are continuing to visit and engage with high schools and Universities to promote University study and the study of law.
Another exciting development this year is a research paper that one of our Executive Members (Litia Tuiburelevu) is conducting called Pasifika Peoples and the Criminal Justice System in Aotearoa. That research is being funded by The Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation.
The PLA recognise the importance of this project and are particularly fortunate to have its head researcher on our executive committee.
What do you know about the Te Ao Mārama model for the District Court and how does that impact on the Pacific community?
Ata: My understanding is that Te Ao Mārama aims to provide, within the Court setting, a much broader perspective of offenders and seeks to work in partnership with local iwi, communities and community leaders.
Recognising the intrinsic value in the existing community lead groups and their processes, such as the importance of consulting with kaumatua, matai, church leaders, that will ultimately add value to the justice process and will impact positively on the wider community.
In terms of the Pacific community, hopefully Te Ao Mārama will allow for a more meaningful process and one where the community sees itself within it.
Joseph: There is this challenge with the catch all phrase of Pasifika. There are so many unique cultures within the concept of Pasifika.
We have similarities amongst those cultures but there are stark and unique differences too. Trying to accommodate those distinctive cultural practices can be difficult.
That being said, the PLA recognises that Te Ao Mārama is an important first step in the right direction for the Courts and importantly the access to justice for Māori and Pasifika people.
What are your thoughts for the development of the legal profession and the PLA over the next 20 years?
Ata: What we would like to see of the profession is one which is more representative, from the bar and bench. We would like the number of Pacific lawyers to grow beyond the current 6%.
This would hopefully result in the legal profession and indeed aspects of the justice system, shifting from being perceived as being largely monocultural, to being one which can function together with other cultures, with all cultures making a significant contribution to the legal profession, which may ultimately result in better long-term outcomes for those before the Courts.
Joseph: A particular area of development I would like to see in the law is how we can better incorporate pacific indigenous praxis into our legal system.
An example is how we can incorporate tikanga Māori into the development of law across civil and non-civil law practice. We have seen this practically done in the Supreme Court case of Ellis by allowing a deceased person to pursue an appeal where the reasons for doing so included a consideration of the concept of Mana.
Perhaps over the next 20 years we could see aspects or complete processes of the Court and in particular the criminal justice functions, operated out of a marae or a fale (as we already see in the Youth Court Jurisdiction with the Rangatahi and Pasifika Courts).
Ata: For now, it is a privilege for us to serve our members and our communities, doing our best to continue the work of those before us, in preparation for those to come.