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Māori under-represented in legal profession

The Māori economy may have reached around $37 billion – but are there going to be enough lawyers around to advise it?

Statistics obtained by the New Zealand Law Society show Māori are still under-represented in the profession.

Demographic estimates from the Ministry of Social Development have Māori sitting at 15% of the population in 2006, and a projected proportion of 16% in 2016.

Using data from the 2006 census of 9,411 legal professionals broken down into ethnicity, Māori were estimated to make up around 5.5% of the profession. The information was collected from jobs broken down by ethnicity collected by Statistics New Zealand. For this purpose, lawyer included barrister, solicitor, judge, tribunal members, or magistrates.

The Law Society keeps records of the ethnicity of lawyers who voluntarily disclose it, but only 6900 lawyers have elected to do so (62% of all lawyers). Of these 3.5% have said they are Māori.

To establish if Māori participation in the law was improving in the up-and-coming generations, statistics of the 2010 law graduates were broken down into ethnic groups. Information was collected from all New Zealand law schools except AUT University, which has not yet had a graduating class.

Māori made up 8% of the 2010 law graduates. This is in line with general enrolment at these universities where Māori also made up 8% in 2011.

Encouraging Māori participation in law is an opportunity universities should grasp according to co-President of Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa (the Māori Law Society), Tama Potaka.

“The Māori population is both young (with over half of the Māori population being younger than 25) and growing (as a percentage of the national demographic),” Mr Potaka says.

“It is important for Māori and New Zealand for there to be a better understanding of the law amongst Māori – at individual, tribal, and community levels.”

There is also a swiftly emerging need for lawyers to be equipped to work with Māori businesses and grow the Māori economy.

“There is a commensurate growing desire for Māori businesses and families to have Māori lawyers either receiving or involved in receiving instruction mandates, and lawyers with a broader understanding of collective Māori aspirations,” Mr Potaka says.

Waikato University appears to have identified the need to attract Māori law students. This is reflected by the fact their number of Māori graduates is more than double the national law school average, and exceeds the proportion of the country’s population.

Of Waikato University’s law graduates in 2010, 20% were Māori ‒ just under the university’s general enrolment figure in 2011 of 22%.

With the percentage of Māori at roughly 25% of the region, and Māori making up 22% of overall enrolments the University still has a small way to go to meet or exceed the regional demographic, but compared to other universities offering law it leads the Māori enrolment figures.

Professor Bradford Morse, Dean of Law at Waikato University, says since inception 20 years ago, the law school has tried to reflect the Māori dimension of the country and the central North Island.

The school is committed to respecting the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s bi-cultural society and tikanga Māori and maintaining a high percentage of Māori staff and mentors.

Professor Morse says the Law School’s “once you’re in, you’re in” approach is often a better “cultural fit” for Māori who are more likely to succeed in a community-based learning environment than in the highly competitive individualistic atmosphere present in most other law schools.

“We want [the students] to do well, not to succeed at the expense of others,” Professor Morse says.

The university also recognises that the relationship of Māori towards the legal system is different to many non-Māori.

“[Māori] don’t see law in the abstract. They see law in the way it has been a tool used to stifle and colonise,” he says.

On the other hand, the legal system has also protected Māori, through the land courts and restoration of balance.

“[The law has given] legal weight as well as mana to the Treaty of Waitangi,” Mr Morse says.

The University also acknowledges the existence of Māori legal structures. “In teaching legal systems tikanga Māori is part of the legal analysis,” Mr Morse says.

This article was published in LawTalk 781, 23 September 2011, page 1.

Last updated on the 11th May 2012