12 Apr 2021

History made in NZ with first Pasifika judge outside Auckland

4:33 pm on 12 April 2021

The New Zealand city of Lower Hutt has become the first outside Auckland with a Pasifika resident district court judge.

The selection of Michael Alaifatu Mika, a Samoan New Zealander, is being hailed as the vanguard of diversity and representation, the embodiment of Te Ao Mārama - a reflection of the changing judicial needs of a multicultural Aotearoa.

Judge Michael Mika leading the manuhiri on to Waiwhetū Marae.

Judge Michael Mika leading the manuhiri on to Waiwhetū Marae. Photo: Dominic Godfrey / RNZ Pacific

At a pōwhiri at Waiwhetū Marae, Judge Mika described taking up the new role as a homecoming.

The 53-year-old grew up in Kairangi, the Hutt Valley. His mother Fou and father Salafai, the Methodist faife'au (reverend), drilled into him and two younger brothers a strong sense of direction and tautua, or service.

Mika went to Upper Hutt College and played rugby there before being lured to Dunedin to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1996.

A quarter of a century on, and with many years practising law in Invercargill under his belt, he has returned home to the Hutt as a judge.

Chief District Court Judge Hēmi Taumaunu - the legal mind behind the judiciary's new district court approach to diversity - said Mika was an exciting appointment which sent a strong positive message to the community.

"That the district Court kaupapa of Te Ao Mārama and the new model, the new way of doing business, is a real thing with a resident judge being appointed for the first time to the Hutt Valley and that judge being of Samoan descent."

Chief District Court Judge Hēmi Taumaunu and Judge Mike Mika.

Chief District Court Judge Hēmi Taumaunu and Judge Mike Mika. Photo: Dominic Godfrey / RNZ Pacific

For Mika, Samoa remains central to identity. Versed in the cultural nuances of Fa'a Samoa, while covered in lei and bright red ulafala necklaces, he spoke in Samoan in the wharenui.

Prior to practising law, he played rugby professionally for Otago, the Highlanders and the UK club team Coventry, in a career that eventually took him to Wales in 1999 for Manu Samoa where they defeated the hosts in the Rugby World Cup at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Mike MIka for Manua Samoa

Mike MIka for Manua Samoa Photo: Manu Samoa

Back in the Hutt Valley's Waiwhetū, Minister for Courts, and for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio said Mika had come home to a community that was very proud of him.

"I'm particularly proud because he's bilingual, strongly bilingual. And so he'll bring a cultural lens," Aupito said.

"It's a hard task being a judge and so I think that cultural lens that he brings to the role is going to help him dispense with some complex and challenging issues that will come to his court."

One who is cognisant of those challenges is Auckland's Judge Ida Malosi, New Zealand's first woman Pasifika judge and a former Samoa Supreme Court Justice, who said Mika was the right person for the big task ahead of him.

It has been 19 years since the first, and last, Pasifika male appointment, so Mika has been a long time coming, noted Malosi.

"I might say it was worth the wait because he's such an outstanding man but of course so many lost opportunities along the way but we're here and the chief judge has talked about Te Ao Mārama and for our Pasifika people and for me it feels like this is the new light."

Mika pointed to where he'll be directing that light.

"My passion is, and I suppose I have a real heart for our young people and that's where I want to be working, in the district court realm," he said.

"That's where our judiciary has been and will continue to make changes and it's working with our youth."

Mika's initial focus will be on learning the ropes - he has spent the last month touring the country's district courts - but making sure everyone 'has a fair crack' is a long term priority.

The community needs to feel that institutions do represent them, he added.

"There hasn't been a Pasifika judge here in Kairangi and I suppose it's good for people to see people that look like them."

Salafai, Mike and Fou Mika at Waiwhetū Marae

Salafai, Mike and Fou Mika at Waiwhetū Marae Photo: Dominic Godfrey / RNZ Pacific

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster agreed, saying the judiciary played a significant part in the response to issues in the community, so it was important that it reflected them.

"Understanding of the issues that lead to offending are absolutely key in responding appropriately to it," Coster said.

"And we see where we have diverse representation, whether it's in policing, in the judiciary or in other parts, that the understanding is enhanced and then we can respond in the right way so it's a really positive."

Michael Mika was sworn in as a judge on 8 March. He has his first sitting day as resident Lower Hutt District Court judge today.