October 2015 Māori Law Review

Mana wāhine – strategies for survival – Māori perspectives – Deputy Chief Judge Caren Fox

Hui-a-Tau Conference 2015 - Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa

Deputy Chief Judge Caren Fox, Māori Land Court

5 September 2015

Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa (the Māori Law Society) held its annual conference at Waitangi in September 2015. The conference provided an opportunity for lawyers, law students and members of the judiciary to discuss a wide range of legal issues relevant to Māori.  The Māori Law Review is proud to support Te Hunga Roia Māori and to publish a selection of the presentations from the conference.

The following paper is by Deputy Chief Judge Caren Fox of the Māori Land Court. It is a shortened adaptation of a paper delivered in 2014 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of New Zealand Law Society Continuing Legal Education Ltd from the Women, the Law, and the Corner Office Conference 2014.

Mana wāhine – strategies for survival – Māori perspectives


Today I want to draw on my experience and the experience of other Māori women to analyse what motivates Māori women to enter the law, to assess what can be done structurally to keep them in the law and to provide some advice on how to carry on in the law.


So what motivates us? It is simple, it is to provide for our whānau initially and then as we become more skilled, for our hapū and iwi and/or Māori people generally.

Structural measures for entry and retention

When I was a student and then a law lecturer many years ago at Victoria University and Waikato University, we worked collectively with other Māori law students and Māori lawyers to identify structural issues that prevented the full participation of Māori in the study of law. I learnt very early, that the more content you have with a Māori perspective, the more likely it is that more Māori will want to study law. That is exactly what happened during the 1980s and when coupled with a Māori student quota and focused tuition, the graduation rate for Māori students, particularly Māori women, went from one or two every four to five years to between five and 10 per annum. I have taken the lessons from that time into my career and at every bend, and there have been many, I have worked to provide an environment where the Māori perspective is recognised and, where able, I have attempted to increase the numbers of Māori in the profession, to ensure that the Māori perspective is heard in the law.

However, I am now a judge, so I am a little out of touch with both law schools and practice. But I do not think that the approach in law schools has changed markedly. What has changed is the cost of going to law school and that has been a major barrier to overcome for many Māori.

In terms of practice, I asked Kiritapu Allan, a brilliant Māori woman lawyer from Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (the Māori Law Society) to do a quick round up of views on what Māori women practitioners perceive to be the structural and/or career issues that have inhibited Māori women progressing into senior roles in the law.

Essentially the barriers identified by these Māori women in the law fall into five categories and these are:

  1. Barriers in the legal profession and culture;
  2. Gender perceptions – battling the status quo;
  3. Working arrangements and motherhood;
  4. Confidence to act and/or be at the table; and
  5. Lack of role models and role modelling for wāhine Māori (Māori women), (the counter-factual position being that wāhine Māori in senior roles are required to be all things to all people.)

As luck would have it, Kiritapu Allan also advised that at Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa Hui-a-Tau 2014 (the Māori Law Society Annual Conference), the topic of retaining women in the practice of law was the subject of one of their sessions. She attached a paper prepared by Paranihia Walker and Angela Hansen that describes the difficulties that women face in staying in the law and then the paper provides some strategies for accommodating the needs of women practitioners. These strategies include developing a policy within a law firm that provides for flexible work arrangements and accommodates the Māori perspective. The paper gives some useful tips around ensuring clarity of roles and expectations, security of information and confidentiality, and technological issues. I do not think I can add to this very thoughtful paper as far as looking at law firm strategies are concerned, other than to encourage collaborative and consensus decision making. You may find that Māori can lead the way in this regard.

Thus for law students and practitioners there are clearly obstacles to entering and/or remaining in the law but there are strategies that if applied structurally can improve participation and retention.

Facing Up

Having entered the law, Māori women then have to survive its rigour. In doing so, they tend to underestimate their abilities. Her Honour Judge Reeves described the root cause of this malaise as the “imposter syndrome” (Her Honour Judge Reeves “Me, my journey to working for our people” (paper presented at Federation of Māori Authorities Annual Conference, Whanganui, 28 September 2014)). They will ask “Am I really good enough?” or “Do I have the experience for this role?” in circumstances where men with half their expertise have no trouble stepping into the void, which they leave vacant. To overcome the malaise Judge Reeves advised that, “The key is to recognise opportunities, to have the courage to take them, and not be afraid to close one door and walk through another.” We both agree that Māori women need to step up and as she said “lean in” to ensure their right to be at the forefront of their legal careers.

Staying in the Law

Once there, the trick is to stay there and that too requires motivation. It requires continually searching for what inspires you about the law. For me I look to:

  • My whānau, hapū and iwi, as without them all else would be pointless.
  • Te Kooti and his prophetic saying “Ma te ture anō te ture e aki” usually translated as: “only the law can be pitted against the law.” So ask what can you contribute and what fits with your own personal obligations, and find your niche. The good news is that the law is so diverse that there are many ways to practice law, including in policy, tribal organisations and the private commercial sector.
  • The history of the contribution of our women who have influenced the law as much as those who have practiced within it. National leaders to be recognised include Eva Rickard (now deceased), Sharon Hawk, Nganeko Mihinnick, Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans who led the protest movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • New Zealand politics and the Hon Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, the Hon Sandra Lee, the Hon Hekia Parata, the Hon Paula Bennett, the Hon Tariana Turia and Metiria Turei are leaders, despite what you may think of their politics.
  • The Presidents of the Māori Women’s Welfare league beginning with Dame Whina Cooper and including Dame Miraka Szaszy, Dame Georgina Kirby, Druis Barret, Dame June Mariu, Areta Koopu and now Prue Kapua have also been part of the vanguard for change.
  • The international front, where Aroha Mead, Pauline Tangiora, Dr. Erihapeti Murchie were a formidable team representing Māori before the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the Commission on Human Rights. They collectively, and with other indigenous peoples’ representatives, contributed to the development of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now Valmaine Toki (lecturer in law at Waikato University) sits on the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Māori women in the law beginning with the Hon Georgina Te Heuheu of Ngāti Tūwharetoa who became the first Māori woman to graduate in law in the 1970s. She was also the first Māori woman lawyer appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal and her time on the Tribunal was one of the critical ingredients in the success of its work during the 1980s-1990s. During the decade of the 1990s, her Honour Judge Denise Henare became the first Māori woman to be appointed to the New Zealand Law Commission and Gina Rudland became the first woman President of the Māori Law Society, before the days of co-presidents. Then there was Cath Nesus who along with the Paki brothers formed the team that marshalled through Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993. Senior practitioners from my era who kept us accountable were Moana Maniapoto and Annette Sykes. There followed many others including Tania Tetitaha, Harete Hipango, La-Verne King, Hana Ellis and Kathy Ertel (now deceased).
  • Māori women who have led the Māori Law Society. I still mourn the tragic loss of Gina Rudland and Jolene Patuawa who, as young lawyers with so much to give, lost their struggle with cancer while working for Māori people. I note that La-Verne King, Metiria Turei, Mereana Hond, Dayle Takitimu, Ngaroma Tahana and now Rachel Hall have also had the honour of co-leading that organisation.
  • Māori women who have entered academia. Names such as Ani Mikaere, Dr. Nin Tomas (now deceased), her Honour Judge Stephanie Milroy, Mereana Hond, Linda Te Aho, Dr. Claire Charters and Valmaine Toki have been etched in the memory of many law students.
  • In more recent times the emerging Treaty, commercial and resource management lawyers such as Kiriana Tan, Rachel Hall, Bernadette Arapere, Paranihia Walker, Horiana Irwin, Te Aopare Dewes, Natalie Coates, Kiritapu Allan, Terena Wara, Ihipera Peters, and Haylee Putaranui are leading the second phase of Māori development beyond Treaty settlements.
  • Lawyers who have been elevated to the judiciary including the Hon Justice Lowell Goddard who became the first Māori woman QC and later a Justice of the High Court. Other women have also inspired my journey and I think of Chief Justice Sian Elias and Justice Glazebrook in this regard. Along with the work of Judges Milroy and Reeves, I look to the contributions of their honours Judge Denise Clark, Judge Francis Eivers, Judge Elaine Wills, and Judge Anis Sommerville when searching for reasons to stay in the law. I also remember the work of Her Hon Judge Karina Williams (now deceased).


I conclude by noting, look for what inspires you.

Alternatively, approach those who inspire you to be mentors. Do not be afraid, as most people are only too happy to help.

Finally, stay balanced and healthy. Waka ama does it for me.

Find out what does it for you.