17 Mar 2015

Messy data on Maori judges

8:14 pm on 17 March 2015

The Māori legal profession is questioning why the Government's data on the number of judges who identify as tāngata whenua is out-of-date.

Tai Ahu

Lawyer Tai Ahu says the government need to be more vigilant. Photo: SUPPLIED

Officials first told Radio New Zealand there were 28 judges of Māori descent, but later conceded the tally was wrong.

Radio New Zealand originally reported there were no tāngata whenua judges in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Environment Court or Employment Court.

In emails, officials then explained there was one in the Court of Appeal - Justice Cooper.

In addition, after more emails and stories, Te Manu Korihi was told to change its figures as there were in fact five High Court judges who identified as being Māori rather than three.

There are approximately 243 judges in Aotearoa and the new figures show 31 of those are of Māori descent.

Call for more up-to-date data

Māori lawyer Tai Ahu said it reflected badly and the Government needed to be more vigilant.

He is urging it to adopt a new way of establishing the number of Māori judges.

"It demonstrates a lack of monitoring so there needs to be systems in place that monitor the number of Māori judges.

"It sends a signal that it's not a particularly important issue for the Ministry of Justice and for the judiciary and I think it's wrong to think of it in those terms."

He said it was vital to know exactly how many there were as an increased understanding of tikanga, or Māori culture and tradition, is becoming a necessity in addressing issues that arise in the courtroom.

"There does need to be increased monitoring and vigilance around not just recording numbers.

"Definitely if there are issues in relation to the numbers and if the numbers are not being accurately counted then there are bound to be issues in relation to whether Māori judges are bringing critical Māori thinking to the bench, which is at the end of the day what we're after.

"If there's no system in place to monitor even the number of judges who associate with being Māori then there's some deep issues here."

Māmari Stephens, a senior lecturer in the School of Law at the Victoria University of Wellington, said personal information should be updated every two years as some judges only start to recognise and become confident to identify as Māori as their career progresses.

Māmari Stephens

Māmari Stephens Photo: SUPPLIED

"At this level, if we don't even know how many judges we have that are Māori, there's a fairly good bit of evidence there that we're not actually developing the sense that being a Māori judge is a normal thing or a legal career even is a normal thing.

"What is shows is a lack of systemization of the gathering of that information. I wonder if they've ever been asked that question [of how many Māori judges there are] because of the fact that they've had to go back and change the information they've provided suggests that they may not have been asked this too many times before."

Gerald Sharrock, a Pākehā lawyer who works with claimants before the Waitangi Tribunal, said the amendments reflected that it had not been something in their normal purview of policy making.

Mr Sharrock said better monitoring was required and their current practice was sloppy.

"If you think about it in terms of your general census data it is something that should potentially be collected on important office holders and judges are important office holders in our community."

The Attorney-General's office refused to answer questions put to it byTe Manu Korihi, and the Crown Law Office and the Ministry of Justice failed to respond to requests for comment.