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The Victoria University of Wellington Māori Law Students’ Society and its inspiring initiatives

01 December 2017 - By Carwyn Jones

Ko te manu e kai ana i te miro, nōna te ngahere

Ko te manu e kai ana i te mātauranga, nōna te Ao

The bird who feeds on the miro berry has the forest

The bird who feeds on knowledge has the world

Whanganui riverscape

For me, one of the real joys of teaching at a law school is seeing our students using their developing skills and knowledge of the law to engage in the world around them and to work towards positive change in our society. Over the last few years, the Māori Law Students’ Society at Victoria, Ngā Rangahautira, has been responsible for two inspiring initiatives that I’ll share a little about in this piece: Te Hīnātore – a programme of occasional seminars on tikanga and law; and Ngā Kaiaronui – a group focused on proactively participating in law reform processes.

Te Hīnātore developed from a group of our students identifying the value of exploring the relationship between New Zealand law and Māori law (as incorporated in tikanga Māori). Initial conversations about how the students might encourage and support a greater understanding of these two legal traditions began after a presentation from Justice Joe Williams in which he addressed, amongst other things, the creation of a course for members of the judiciary that focused on issues of law and tikanga.

Our students were interested, and heartened, to hear that judges were taking seriously the need to consider these issues. However, some of them were struck by the fact that this was retrofitting to some extent and observed that, ideally, it would be better to encounter ideas about tikanga (as the Māori legal system) at law school, at the same time as being introduced to ideas about the New Zealand state legal system, common law, and international law.

The students began discussions amongst themselves and with faculty members about ways to explore these ideas. Eventually, they arrived at the idea of inviting guest speakers to participate in wānanga or discussion sessions that would address different legal topics and problems and consider how Māori law would deal with the issue and how the New Zealand state legal system would deal with it. For example, one session focused on the ground-breaking Whanganui River settlement – Te Awa Tupua – and was based around a facilitated conversation between speakers who could variously speak to the technical legal structure of the settlement and also the tikanga/Māori legal principles that are recognised in that settlement. These sessions came to be known as Te Hīnātore which can mean ‘a glimmer of light’ or ‘a glimpse’ or even ‘enlightenment’. The conversations that came out in these discussions were incredibly rich and the students saw them as being of real, tangible value to their legal development and something that is an enhancement to the LLB qualification they are working towards.

Another student-led initiative of note is the establishment of a group called Ngā Kaiaronui. Ngā Kaiaronui takes its name from the ‘kete aronui’ one of the three baskets of knowledge in Māori tradition. This is the basket of knowledge “of aroha, peace and the arts and crafts which benefit the Earth and all living things – one of the three baskets of knowledge. This basket relates to knowledge acquired through careful observation of the environment. It is also the basket of ritual, of literature, philosophy and is sometimes regarded as the basket of the humanities.” ‘Ngā Kaiaronui’, therefore, refers to those people who work with that knowledge and in those fields of endeavour. Ngā Kaiaronui is a group of students who have come together to proactively engage in law reform processes.

The group has now made several submissions to select committees on issues they are concerned about, and especially issues of particular relevance to Māori. One of the first matters addressed by Ngā Kaiaronui was the reform of Te Ture Whenua Māori – the Māori Land Act. As this is an area in which I work, Ngā Kaiaronui invited me to an initial meeting to provide some technical guidance on the Te Ture Whenua Bill, then before the Māori Affairs select committee.

I was expecting that there would probably be half a dozen or so students interested in working on the submission. I was completely taken aback when I arrived in the meeting room to find about 30 students there, ready to get to work. Because of their numbers, the students were able to break into groups to consider different aspects of the bill.

I was impressed with the way they all stuck with the work of drafting the submission and when it came to speaking to the submission, a large group of those who had been involved went to Parliament to support the designated speakers. These students are building up valuable expertise in terms of preparing and presenting submissions and have helped to run workshops for members of my own community who wanted to make submissions on our Treaty settlement bill.

It is deeply inspiring to see our students engaging with the legal world and the Māori world in ways like this and this also points to an area in which the strength of the profession is developing at pace.

Dr Carwyn Jones is a Senior Lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington Faculty of Law. He will be one of the contributors to a regular column on Māori legal issues and the practice of law.

Last updated on the 1st December 2017