New Zealand Law Society - Te Reo Māori and the Legal Profession

Te Reo Māori and the Legal Profession

Te Reo Māori and the Legal Profession

Te reo Māori is being revitalised in legal settings through initiatives such as the Rangatahi Courts and the Te Ao Mārama district court model. Judges’ Clerk at the Supreme Court of New Zealand Nerys Udy reflects on her relationship with te reo. She describes te reo as both a personal treasure and a tangible skillset for the legal workplace.

With Mahuru Māori and Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori just around the corner it is timely for the legal profession to stop and reflect on the role te reo Māori plays in all of our lives. For me, any kōrero about te reo Māori always starts with my Taua (grandmother). My Taua was a beautiful Ngāi Tahu woman, who loved our reo. She reclaimed her language as an adult and later became a te reo Māori teacher, teaching te reo to women in prisons.

I often think about her path as I continue my own te reo journey and as I begin my journey in the law. My desire to learn te reo is innate in my whakapapa, but it was immediately inspired by the ideal set by my Taua. Her ability to learn te reo and subsequently teach it is reflective of the fact that she was a highly intelligent woman, despite never being afforded the opportunity to attend university. It gives me cause to reflect on the privilege of my tertiary education, which opened both te reo and the law to me.

Relationship between the law and te reo Māori

My Taua’s role as a kaiako reo in prisons reminds me that there is a relationship between the law and te reo Māori, intersecting in both negative and positive ways. As others have noted, it is a tragedy that for some, their first introduction to te reo Māori is in a carceral institution and reflects the fact that Māori are still overrepresented in our criminal justice system. At the same time, the healing power of te reo Māori to restitch the severed connections to whakapapa and tikanga is potent. More and more, te reo is becoming relevant in all areas of the law and legal practice. It is this relationship between te reo Māori and the legal world that I wish to explore, with reference to some of my own recent experiences.

Headshot of Nerys standing in court. She is smiling and has her long hair in a ponytail.
Nerys Udy, Judge's Clerk at the Supreme Court

It is important to first note that te reo Māori and law have been intrinsically intertwined since the arrival of humans to these islands. Te reo is fundamental to the legal system that subsists within tikanga. One could say that te reo and tikanga are inseparable. After all, it is no accident that one often hears the common phrase ‘te reo me ōna tikanga’ – the language and its law and customs.

With the arrival of Europeans to Aotearoa, the common law system has been both a companion of and combatant against te reo Māori. In the first common law forums of Aotearoa New Zealand, te reo Māori was the primary language of the courts. Although the judges were invariably Pākehā, both they and the Māori participants who engaged with the courts spoke te reo Māori.

Later however, the common law system played a significant role in the suppression of te reo, by entrenching English as the primary language and sitting alongside the numerous policies that suppressed various aspects of Te Ao Māori, in which te reo is intrinsically entwined. During the ‘Māori renaissance’ of the late 20th century, the law also aided the revitalisation of te reo with the passage of the Māori Language Act 1987 and subsequent legislation. Of course, such legislation was merely a tool and the true progress is thanks to the countless te reo Māori advocates who have worked tirelessly for the revitalisation of te reo.

Revitalising te reo Māori in legal settings

Now, te reo Māori is finding its way back into courtrooms through initiatives such as the Rangatahi Courts and the soon to be implemented Te Ao Mārama district court model. These innovations draw on the healing power of te reo Māori, which I believe my grandmother understood in choosing to teach te reo. And yet, the need for te reo in these spaces again speaks to the overrepresentation of Māori in the justice system, as both offenders and victims.

So it is clear that te reo and law have a relationship, stronger or weaker depending on the law one is talking about. That relationship has a tangible effect and is relevant to everyone in the legal profession. Quite simply, te reo is a language of the law.

For myself, I have found te reo has been a constant companion in my first steps into the legal profession. My language has grounded me in my identity as I enter new spaces, but it has also been a hugely beneficial practical tool and has added unique value to my work. On several occasions I have found myself with research tasks where my te reo has been a critical tool, allowing me to access Māori language sources, most of which are not available in English. This includes the vast number of historical newspapers written in te reo Māori, native land court minute books and contemporary writings in te reo Māori.

As Justice Joe Williams pointed out in a recent lecture on tikanga in legal education, many of these te reo Māori sources are significant records of tikanga as it was being practised, as law. They contain debates about land, whānau, taonga, and practices such as rāhui, all according to tikanga. To ignore such sources is to ignore a vast resource of historical and legal information. For some contexts, English can only present an incomplete picture. So, in giving me access, my te reo Māori has allowed me to produce legal research of a more nuanced, deeper quality than I could have otherwise.

The growing role of te reo Māori in the workplace

This experience has been a realisation for me about the significance of te reo for the legal workplace. I feel privileged to have found myself in spaces where I have been able to use te reo in this way. I use the word privilege because the value of te reo Māori in a workplace is often viewed tokenistically, if it is welcome at all. Māori staff, whether they are confident speakers or not, are often expected to provide mihi and karakia on demand, despite not being hired for that purpose. The burden can be particularly heavy for those who have attained fluency and excellence. These expectations can also be a traumatic experience for those who have not yet found the opportunity to reclaim their reo, bringing up emotions around generational dispossession and the struggle for identity.

Practitioners may find te reo an indispensable tool if they wish to truly engage with their clients and find the best solutions for them, whether those solutions lie in the common law system or in tikanga

In the face of these issues, my experience has demonstrated to me that holding te reo can bring deeper value to the legal profession beyond such surface level window-dressing. It is a personal treasure and it is also tangible skillset for the legal workplace. As a language of the law, it is becoming an important part of a lawyer’s skillset because it is simply not possible to understand the law within tikanga without te reo Māori. I envisage that this value will only become more significant as the relationship between tikanga Māori and the mainstream legal system continues to evolve, in one way or another. This value must be recognised by employers.

And te reo is more and more becoming an important part of the professional world in other ways. In recent projects I have been involved with, te reo Māori has been the dominant language, further highlighting that te reo is both a language of the personal realm and a language of business. I could not have engaged fully in those spaces without te reo. It seems evident that te reo will be further entrenched as a language of legal practice, especially as the Māori economy develops further, as iwi governance entities grow and as the tradition of Māori innovation continues. A growing number of Māori will be seeking legal services in an array of different practice areas. Practitioners may find te reo an indispensable tool if they wish to truly engage with their clients and find the best solutions for them, whether those solutions lie in the common law system or in tikanga.

Reflecting on my recent experiences, I am grateful for the privilege to have access both to te reo and to legal education. I am by no means an expert in either space and I still have a lot to learn. But as my journey continues it is exciting to see that points of confluence are emerging. There are many fantastic initiatives occurring and Te Hunga Rōia Māori is leading the way, with amazing role models setting the example and sharing their time and knowledge of te reo with others. I encourage all te reo Māori speakers, especially those new to the workforce, to embrace the unique value you bring to legal spaces, through your reo and the worldview that goes with it. I encourage legal workplaces to recognise that value and support those in the profession taking steps on their own reo journey, wherever they may be on that pathway. Kia kaha te reo Māori!

Lawyer Listing for Bots