6 Apr 2020

Defence lawyers form national organisation with focus on Māori outcomes

10:27 am on 6 April 2020

Defence lawyers have formed a national organisation with a focus on achieving better outcomes for Māori in the justice system.

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The group will have a practical focus on tackling the over-representation of Māori in the justice system. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Established this month, Defence Lawyers Association New Zealand is the country's only group solely dedicated to defence lawyers.

Co-founder Christopher Stevenson said the launch was particularly timely amid the Covid-19 pandemic as lawyers faced increasingly-challenging work conditions providing essential legal services.

"We have all seen a need to have an organisation where we can share ideas, training and information and national bodies have been very successful internationally,"Stevenson said.

The group, headed up by a dozen-strong steering committee of geographically spread senior lawyers, would have a practical focus on tackling the over-representation of Māori in the justice system, he said.

"We want to be practical, we don't just want to talk. Our intention is to be engaged and a part of improvements in the criminal justice system because defence lawyers see it first-hand.

"You go into New Zealand prisons and they're absolutely filled to the brim, mainly with young Māori men, and it's a shameful and very sorry sight."

Stevenson said the association would be guided by the advice of Māori lawyers and he was heartened the justice system was beginning to consider the impact of colonisation on offence rates and utilising tools to mitigate this, like Section 27 cultural reports.

He said delayed court hearings and prison populations were primary concerns for defence lawyers during the pandemic.

"We have around 10,000 New Zealanders incarcerated, many of them double bunked, and they are super vulnerable. If the virus gets into prisons it's going to be absolutely disastrous."

He said it was time to think seriously about establishing a system for early release for non-violent inmates serving short sentences and ensuring people weren't taken into custody unless absolutely necessary.

Wellington defence lawyer Echo Haronga is one of several Māori lawyers in the DLANZ's steering group.

She hoped the association would be a clear independent voice from specialist defence bar and a chance to make the Māori world view more common in courthouses throughout the country.

"Our senior bar are very, very skilled specialist trial lawyers but they don't necessarily have an intercept with te ao Māori although a lot of the people they represent are disproportionately Māori.

"I'm really looking forward to trying to develop both a high level understanding from what the senior bar know about the criminal justice system and a platform for them to wānanga with us as to how the Māori dimension might be captured there."

She said having senior lawyers and Queens Counsel involved in the association to support younger lawyers was also an important part of the kaupapa.

"The mentoring side of things is pretty important because you can't really get the Māori dimension into courtrooms if you're not supporting Māori lawyers coming through from university."

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