Following the lead of Te Paati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi in Parliament, the courts have conceded that lawyers may wear taonga Māori instead of neckties – so long as the top button of their shirt is done up.
It was when barrister Mana Taumaunu saw his uncle on the morning news on TV, battling parliamentary standing orders to be allowed to wear his Māori taonga rather than a European necktie, that Taumaunu realised he needed to take his own stand.
And stand he did – before the judge in Gisborne District Court that same week.
“I saw him asserting his Māori identity and mana in Parliament,” Taumaunu tells Newsroom. “And I thought, why can’t we do that? A court room is similar in the sense we have all these old traditions and symbols from Britain. But Aotearoa, New Zealand, is not a British country. We are part of Polynesia and we should reflect it.”
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Taumaunu admits it was with some trepidation that he turned up to court that first day, in Gisborne. “I was a little bit nervous. But we have a legal community and judges who are not afraid of innovation and change. The first ever marae-based court for young offenders started here. So I knew our executive judge would be supportive.”
And he was right. The judge gave him permission to wear the taonga – for the day. “But he said if I wanted to continue, I would have to take it up with higher judicial authority.”
As it happened, Taumaunu ran into fellow Gisborne lawyer Tiana Epati, who is president of the NZ Law Society. She took a photo, posted it on social media to gauge the reaction from other lawyers – and then, she took up the battle by writing to the Chief Justice.
“I’m really proud of our people as they make these brave and courageous decisions, to make changes in places that don’t reflect the cultural identity and character of Aotearoa.”
– Rawiri Waititi, Te Paati Māori
Today, Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann issued new interim guidance authorising the wearing of culturally-significant decorative taonga as part of business attire for counsel appearing in all proceedings in all courts.
The guidance takes effect today, and will stand until the 2009 Court Etiquette Guidelines, which define “business attire”, are updated. It applies to lawyers, judges, court staff, stakeholders and all others who perform official roles in the courts.
“As with neckties, taonga are to be worn with a shirt that has the top button done up,” the new guidance says. “The overriding requirement is that conduct and attire demonstrate respect for the Court and those participating in its proceedings.”
Academic literature has observed it is unlikely a comprehensive definition of taonga is available, the guidance notes. So descriptions of taonga are accepted to have broad scope.
Waitangi Tribunal reports over many years have come to treat “taonga”, as used in the Treaty, as a tangible or intangible item or matter of special cultural significance.
But for the purposes of the guidance, “taonga” is deemed to refer to a decorative item of special Māori cultural significance that is worn around a person’s neck.
“As lawyers, we have this duty to serve the community. Yet we do not even look or sound it – even the language we use like ‘remand’ and telling someone they are not to ‘consume’ alcohol and they must ‘reside’ at an address.”
– Mana Taumaunu, barrister
Te Paati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi applauded Taumaunu’s courage. “I’m really proud of our people as they make these brave and courageous decisions, to make changes in places that don’t reflect the cultural identity and character of Aotearoa,” he told Newsroom.
“They are paving the way for the next generation of lawyers and judges and clerks to express their own identity.
“We’re instilling hope and belief in our people to feel comfortable in who they are, in whatever environment they choose to work and occupy.”
Tiana Epati said the significance of being able to wear taonga was one of many small steps towards the court environment better reflecting Aotearoa, New Zealand.
The Law Society had sought the change at the national level, she said. “After seeing Mana wearing it for a day in court, with the Judge’s permission, I wanted to see what the public and profession might think about this. I put the post on LinkedIn and discussed it with several professional groups. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
“So, I wrote to the judiciary asking they consider this as a permanent change to the court attire guidelines.
“Without question, this is the direct influence of Rawiri Waititi. It probably had not occurred to most of us that the ‘suit’ is a uniform we have inherited.”
More significant still, she said, was yesterday’s announcement that Gisborne would join Hamilton in housing Te Ao Mārama model of court service and justice delivery – solution-focused judging thst incorporates tikanga and te reo Māori into the courtroom.
Mana Taumaunu was delighted at today’s announcement. “I am really stoked,” he said.
“As lawyers, we have this duty to serve the community. Yet we do not even look or sound it.
“Even the language we use like ‘remand’ and telling someone they are not to ‘consume’ alcohol and they must ‘reside’ at an address. I wanted to do something which made me feel like a lawyer who was from and serving Te Tairawhiti as a community.”
It coincided with an announcement Gisborne would adopt the new Te Ao Marama court model – so he said there was much to celebrate. “So, the whole idea of working to bring the community into the court room is going to happen.
And to what extent was he emboldened by Rawiri Waititi’s actions in Parliament? “He was definitely the inspiration. And that’s why he is my new favourite uncle!”