Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa points out that Māori lawyers want to contribute to the legal aid work despite the challenges facing the system. Ngaroma Tahana, Tumuaki (Partner) at Kahui Legal, talks about her journey after making a conscious decision to move to criminal law due to the over representation of Māori in the criminal justice system.
Disturbing but no surprise was the reaction of Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa to the findings of the Access to Justice survey.
“The report shows the legal aid system relies on unpaid work from Māori lawyers in particular, that it doesn’t pay for almost half the work done on a particular case, and the rate paid is among the lowest fees lawyers get for any time of work,” said Tumuaki Wahine, Jamie-Lee Tuuta, and Tumuaki Tāne, Baden Vertongen, the society’s co-Presidents.
“We’re especially concerned about the findings in the report of the level of stress and pressure being placed on lawyers, especially Māori lawyers, who are doing legal aid work. This is driving some to breaking point, and that is not good enough.
“The irony is the survey also shows that Māori lawyers want to be doing this work, that we do it because we feel we have an obligation to. Many of us would do more if the system supported us rather than took advantage of us.”
Doing it for my people
Ngaroma Tahana is a Tumuaki (Partner) at Kahui Legal, a specialist law firm working at the forefront of Māori development. Based in Rotorua Ngaroma works predominantly in criminal legal aid.
“I went to law school intent on doing commercial law and helping Māori entities. But after five years at Simpson Grierson I moved home and into criminal law. I spent around a decade working as a Crown Prosecutor before switching to defence as a legal aid lawyer.
“It was a conscious decision to move to criminal law given the over representation of Māori in the criminal justice system. For me, in whatever I do, I’m always doing it for my people, and it shows.
“Clients are so grateful that I take the time to hear them and advocate for them in a system founded on cultural values so different from our own. The sense of relief and the gratitude I am shown by them hopefully, means I am making a difference. I was raised to serve so I feel I am fulfilling my purpose.”
The unmet need
Ngaroma sees many clients who are repeat offenders and disillusioned from their previous experiences with the justice system.
“For most, the process has happened around them and without understanding the process in a way that is meaningful to them.
There is more that we can draw on from Te Ao Māori to provide support and guidance to lawyers working with Māori clients.
“Then there has been limited investment to address why they’re in the system in the first place. Section 27 cultural reports are helping to highlight those needs but many reports make for dim reading. It’s no surprise that people end up in the justice system following the trauma they have been through.”
Ngaroma also finds that clients and their whānau need a whole range of support alongside the legal advice she’s being paid to give.
“I spend too much time, as do others, being a social worker, finding accommodation, completing D & A referrals etc. If wrap around services were available at court that would make our clients’ lives a whole lot better. It would also reduce the amount of work that we are not compensated for.”
Ngaroma gets many referrals and requests from tangata whenua wanting a Māori lawyer. She reflects that sadly this can be for a really basic reason like pronouncing their name correctly.
“When they know I’m their lawyer they feel comfortable dealing with me as we share similar worldviews, and we can connect.”
Access through legal aid to Māori lawyers can be hampered by the fact that the funding regime is tied to the provider’s location. This makes it challenging for Ngaroma to take on clients outside Rotorua given the administrative burden of trying to get travel costs paid. That’s an expense the firm often ends up taking on.
“I recently took on a legal aid client from another city. I wasn’t going to answer the phone when I saw the police station calling but then I did, ready to explain to the officer that I was unavailable. I heard this young man speaking over the officer and pleading in Te Reo for me to speak to him. I took the call knowing that Māori speakers doing legal aid are few and far between right across the country.”
The big difference that being a Māori lawyer for a Māori client can bring is the inclusion of the whole whānau.
“It’s hard to underestimate the impact of whanaungatanga and collective responsibility. There is more that we can draw on from Te Ao Māori to provide support and guidance to lawyers working with Māori clients.”
Raising the next generation of Māori lawyers
Ngaroma is concerned about how difficult it is for young lawyers to gain experience and become legal aid providers. She sees the lack of funding for juniors to work with senior practitioners like her as a real drawback as it stops them from gaining valuable experience.
“I absolutely want to see funding for extra staff to work on legal aid cases come through.
“At Kahui we carry those costs to ensure we’re supporting the career development of our staff and meeting the needs of our communities. There is a lot of work that happens that is not compensated for from legal aid.
“Part of the difficulty I have is the gap between seniors and juniors, there is a real shortage of middle tier lawyers. I’d like to encourage more lawyers to consider switching practise areas, to use their experience in new areas. I went from a senior role at a big Auckland firm into a junior role in Rotorua. It was humbling but totally worth it.”
What needs to change
It’s not just the legal aid system that needs to change before we stop seeing the disproportionate number of tangata whenua going through the judicial system.
“There needs to be a multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary approach to address the issues that lead to people being in the system in the first place,” says Ngaroma.
“There needs to be a whole lot of wrap-around services.
“I see change starting to happen through initiatives like Te Ao Mārama in the District Court. But more is needed, including legislative change, investment and a focus on rehabilitation.”
For Te Hunga Rōia Māori, they have a clear message for government on legal aid:
“The Crown needs to urgently consider funding the actual work that is done on each case as well the rate lawyers are paid so someone can keep doing this work.
“We have a failing system that is supposed to help some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens to navigate the justice system early, and appropriately. If the system isn’t fixed soon, it will be beyond repair.”