The Gender & Ethnic Diversity Issue With New Zealand’s Law Profession

The Gender & Ethnic Diversity Issue With New Zealand's Law Profession 2
The Gender & Ethnic Diversity Issue With New Zealand's Law Profession 5

Diversity on the New Zealand bench was delivered a hammer blow in a beatup story from Stuff with a piece in the weekend, although the highest court in the land has a 50/50 split of men to women.

And the Employment and Family courts also have more female than male judges.

It seems something of a harsh call to point out the issue when the numbers are being ‘righted’ on an ongoing basis. Even the District Court, once the bastion of the older white males, has a shade over 61 per cent of male judges and in the High Court it is 57 per cent.

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The ethnicity story is a different one, although strides are being made in that area too with a considerable increase in judges, particularly in the District Courts, being Maori, Asian and Pasifica.

In the District Court, 79 per cent are European, 16 per cent Maori and four per cent Pasifika with two only being of Asian descent out of the 174 judges at that level.

Justice Joe Williams was the first Maori to sit in the Supreme Court and at the Court of Appeal level Justice Mark Cooper claims a Maori allegiance.

Justice Joe Williams, the first Māori judge appointed to the Supreme Court.
ROSA WOODS/STUFFJustice Joe Williams

The situation was referred to last year by Chief Justice, Dame Helen Winkelmann, to note in a speech last year, “It is therefore a troubling reality that an overwhelmingly pākehā judiciary deals with a predominantly Māori cohort of defendants.”

The Chief Justice pointed out the paucity of judges from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, due to the legal profession disproportionately coming from affluent families and high-decile schools. And she called for judges to have a broad range of legal experience.

“Those who spend 20 years doing work for corporate interests will have experience only of the justice needs and concerns of those clients.” (Sixty-one per cent of senior court judges were corporate/civil lawyers before their appointment, 10 per cent were Crown lawyers or prosecutors, and just 3 per cent practised criminal law fulltime.)

However there are considerably fewer Maori studying law with just 800 of the 14,000 lawyers in the country being Maori, and fewer than 400 are Pasifika.

Women make up around two-thirds of all law student at the New Zealand law schools with a wide variance in ethnicity. At Otago Law School over 90 per cent are European, although at Auckland the figure drops to 39 per cent and at AUT 29 per cent.

The Maori student percentages range from 29 percent (Waikato), 10 per cent (Canterbury) and Pasifika student numbers are 25 per cent at AUT and three per cent at Canterbury.

The highest Asian proportion is unsurprisingly Auckland where 35 per cent of the intake is Asian, compared to seven per cent at Otago.

The law schools are making increasing efforts to attract a greater range in the ethnicity of students, although few have programmes to help those from economically deprived backgrounds attending law school.

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