16 Dec 2019

Sir Joe Williams: 'Once I realised the power of law there was no looking back'

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 16 December 2019

'I seek refuge in the law for it is a parent to the oppressed'.

When Joe Williams was a young man, he was inspired by this line from a song written by Māori religious leader Te Kooti.

Last year, he became the first Māori judge appointed to the Supreme Court.

Justice Joe Williams

Photo: Supplied

Sir Joe talks to Kathryn Ryan about his life, his work and his hopes for a New Zealand justice system that better incorporates Tikanga Māori (Māori customs and protocols).

When he was a kid, Joe Williams won a school scholarship and became the first person in his whānau to pass School Cert (NCEA Level 1).

'The first big difference for me was I went to a school where there was an expectation of me that I wouldn't leave when I was 15 and go be a factory worker.'

Sir Joe's path took shape when he arrived at Victoria University planning to do Māori studies. There he ran into a bunch of Māori law students – including future politician Shane Janes –and thought 'boy, this law thing sounds pretty cool'.

"Once I started law school and realised the power of law, there was no looking back."

At Victoria, he also learnt from his Māori studies lecturer – the "old school tohunga" Ruka Broughton – that te reo was something alive and full of energy.

'The knitting together of those two things – the law and this knowledge of reo and tikanga – gave me my life's path.'

One thing Sir Joe loves about the law is that it's always evolving.

The first law developed in Aotearoa was Kupe's law, he says.

"It was Polynesian in nature but it changed in response to the landscape, to the waterscape, to what the land and its resources needed the law to be. And that took a millennium."

English law arrived here with Captain Cook in 1840. But the colonials attempt to turn New Zealand into "a kind of South Pacific UK" was a failure, Sir Joe says.

By the 1980s, strict adherence to that system was abandoned in favour of creating something more indigenous and unique to a small South Pacific country.

Justice Joe Williams

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Māori culture and Māori law are expressed in tikanga – 'correctness' in relation to customs and protocols, Sir Joe says.

Today, he sees tikanga "seeping into the sinews" of New Zealand common law, especially in resource management, property, child welfare and sentencing.

Kinship is the most important value of Māori culture, Sir Joe says. Yet in New Zealand's current legal framework, Māori communities don't have enough opportunity to take responsibility for their own wrongdoers.

Due to Treaty settlement payments, some communities now have infrastructure, resources, and even partnerships with Oranga Tamariki and Corrections – yet once their vulnerable people are in the courtroom, the communities are not able to help, he says.

"When you get down to the detail of it, the same people sitting across the table negotiating their settlements are the uncles and aunts, great uncles and aunts of the people serving ten years for aggravated robbery 'cause they're the same community, same whānau, same hapu, same names often.

"How do we can create a pipe that connects those two things, so that the re-energised communities as a result of Treaty settlements can help everybody solve the problem of Māori imprisonment?'

"Whanaungatanga is the idea of bringing that person's community into the courtroom, eyeballing the judge, and saying, if possible, 'I know prison is an option but it's not your only option, Judge.'"

The divide between offenders and the justice system in New Zealand is still far too great, he says.

"We tend to sentence caricatures, we sentence six bullet points that fit whatever the sentencing law requires. The backstory is where we find the humanity of defenders and have half a chance of turning their lives around. The system just isn't set up to do that.'"

Yet he is optimistic that New Zealand law is now developing with tikanga as an important element.

"Everybody graduating gets some background in Treaty and tikanga … This generation of lawyers is Kaupapa Māori-literate, Tikanga Māori-literate, Treaty-literate... Whether they're Māori, Pakeha or Chinese, it doesn't matter. That's important, it's quite a sea change.'"

In the 1980s, Joe Williams was a member of the reggae band Aotearoa. He wrote the lyrics for their controversial hit Maranga Ake Ai: