7 May 2019

First Māori on the Supreme Court bench wants a focus on his culture

11:21 am on 7 May 2019

Justice Joe Williams says it's daunting to be the first Māori judge in the Supreme Court but he's determined to see more value put on the Māori culture.

Justice Joe Williams

Justice Joe Williams Photo: Supplied

Last week, he was announced as the newest member of the the country's highest bench.

He's previously held roles as the Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court and chair of the Waitangi Tribunal - and was appointed as a Judge of the Court of Appeal last year.

"It's a big leap from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, to the last court, and of course being the first Māori always creates expectations that will undoubtedly not be met, but I'll do my best," he said.

"I am kind of excited and a little afraid for how the future will play out."

Early in his legal career, Justice Williams joined Kensington Swan in 1988 and established the first unit specialising in Māori issues in a major New Zealand law firm, and developed a large environmental practice.

He became a partner at Kensington Swan in 1992, leaving in 1994 to co-found Walters Williams & Co in Auckland and Wellington.

Justice Williams said it was important that Māori in the courts came to see their culture was valued, and it was up to the system to signal that it valued Māori culture.

He wanted to see more tikanga Māori and culture and identity programmes in prisons, and cultural training also needed to be targeted at officials, he said.

"I think it is happening and it needs to happen quickly, not just the prison population but those who create the prison population - the officials, the corrections officers, the probation officers, all the way through to the judges.

"Once people at the bottom of the pile see that they are valued, my experience is that that brings quite an important shift in attitude amongst those people."

He said it could be as simple as pronouncing Māori names and place names correctly, understanding concepts of whanaungatanga, mana, tapu and local whakapapa.

"It's a tough call for judges who have not grown up with these things but where you are dealing on a daily basis with members of that Māori community, once you signal you get that, the Māori community no longer sees you as other. It sees you as part of them, and it is much more comfortable with the idea that you judge them."

But he said his colleagues understood that this step was crucial, and he got the impression from the Supreme Court that they were open to learning, and understood the country's bi-cultural legal beginnings.

Justice Williams replaces Sir William Young, who has been named to chair the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attacks.

He said there were very intelligent young Māori coming through law school and he hoped that he had set a new norm in having a Māori judge on the Supreme Court.

"I think it will become fairly normal for courts to be relatively conversant with tikanga Māori in a way that the last generation was not."

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