In this chat with Dale, Denise Wallwork, a newly appointed district court judge, recalls her bewildering first steps, as a Māngere girl, towards becoming a lawyer.
Denise has been part of a growing wave of Pasifika and Māori bringing their first-hand knowledge of their realities into a profession not known for its grasp of the range of worlds within New Zealand society. Her voice and work, and the influence of others like her, have been a welcome addition to our justice system.
Talofa, Denise. Congratulations for your appointment as a district court judge. That, I’m sure, is a reflection of the quality of your work as a lawyer. But the path you’ve taken has differed a little from what was routine for the previous generations of New Zealand lawyers. Can you tell us something about your background?
Well, my mum arrived in New Zealand in 1945 with her parents. My dad arrived a little later, in the early ‘50s. They were both born in Sāmoa but are pretty much Kiwis. They bought a property in Māngere when it was all countryside. I’m a Māngere girl. Went to the local schools and really enjoyed them and the community.
My father worked six days a week as a boilermaker. He probably only took Sundays off to go to church. My parents would say, when we were quite young: “You have to go to university. You have to study. You have to get better jobs than ours.”
I remember Dad doing double shifts and thinking: “Gosh. He’s right. It’s too hard having to work like that.” I’ve got a twin sister, Tania Sandra, and a brother, Brent Paul, who’s 18 months older. We never questioned Mum and Dad when they told us to go to university. We were quite obedient. And I really thank them for pushing us.
My brother needed more pushing than my sister and me. He was a lot brighter than us. We were good B students who worked hard. But he was an A student and ended up getting a scholarship to go to dental school in Otago. We’re really grateful they encouraged us to go to university.
It’s a rich story that’s often repeated in Pasifika families. Mum and dad working hard with menial jobs and a humble lifestyle in the hope that their kids will get a better education and more opportunities.
My sister did a law degree with me but, in her 20s, she left to go to America for a holiday and she ended up not coming back. I really, really missed her. After her law degree, she’d practised here, but she said it was too hard in the States to have to do another law degree. To reinvent herself. So she’s now a recruiter and partner in a big firm in Texas — and is married to an African American.
Your surname, Wallwork, doesn’t sound very Sāmoan, although both your parents were born in Sāmoa.
Yes. My dad’s from the village of Sinamoga and my mum’s from Afega. But both my great-grandfathers were English. They came to Sāmoa as traders. I see myself as Sāmoan.
The first person in our family to get a degree was Paul, my dad’s younger brother. He was very bright. Got a scholarship to study at Waitaki Boys in the South Island. His example made the rest of the Wallworks say: “Let’s go to university.”
You need only one person in your family to be an example. Because of him and what he did, my father was able to say: “Just look at your Uncle Paul. He’s gone to university and you can see how well he’s done.”
Both of Uncle Paul’s daughters came and lived with my parents for five or six years while they studied law at university. By then, my sister and I had jobs and my brother was just about finishing his dental degree. So that one person in my family who got a degree was responsible for the rest of us saying: “Well, he did it. Let’s do it.” He showed the way.
Wasn’t your Uncle Paul also a hotshot weightlifter back in the day?
Yes, actually Uncle Paul won the first medal for Sāmoa at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, which was held in Christchurch. He won silver.
You’re from Māngere. So you’d know how it was perceived. Overcrowded state houses. Poor families. Unattractive jobs. Maybe other people looking down on you?
We didn’t have that problem. Yes, there were gang families in our neighbourhood at that time but the only drug was cannabis and they basically kept to themselves.
I went to school with gang children and my family and I didn’t experience any trouble at all. It was a different time. Unfortunately, we now have P. It’s the worst drug out. It’s just destroyed our society.
Let’s talk about law school. Thirty years or so ago, I assume it wouldn’t have been packed with Māori and Pasifika students.
At that time, there were very few brown faces in university. Eric Rush, an Ōtara boy who later became an All Black, was in my year. He caught the Ōtara bus. My sister and I caught the Māngere bus with another Sāmoan girl. There was a Cook Island girl who we hung out with, too. That was a great group.
When I look at my daughter, who’s at law school now, the difference is marked.
I remember being in my first law class and thinking I have no idea what they’re talking about. This is just a totally foreign language. And it was really hard to get to grips with it.
When I visited law school to check out my daughter’s tutorial, I thought: “Oh, man. They’ve got some amazing classes and amazing tutors for the Pasifika and Māori students.” We didn’t have any of that in my time. We were plucked out of public school and dropped into an institution where they were speaking what seemed to be a foreign language. And there was no focus on cultural issues.
It really was a very white world then. There were so few of us. And I remember the first impression I got when I listened to the other students because so many of them came from legal backgrounds. Their fathers were judges or lawyers and, even as students, they were already familiar with law terminology that was new to me — and difficult as well.
Partly because you’d already spent a long time in Manukau, it must’ve been demoralising for you as a young lawyer to see the revolving door at court hearings where, if it wasn’t the same bloke in trouble, it could be his son. Repeat offending. Generation after generation. Were there times when you felt drained seeing Māori and Pacific Islanders going round in circles?
It happens every day. The work is confronting and relentless. It’s really tough and you could see how you could get depressed. But I worked out that I wasn’t there to solve all their problems, or to try and save them. That wasn’t my role.
My role was to be their fierce advocate and ensure that I could defend them as best I could. Make sure they had a fair defence. I’d pursue it as much as I could. And I also knew that one other important matter was their liberty because, once they got a taste of prison, they got entrenched and their lives would quickly change.
So I tried hard for young Māori and Pacific Island boys. You knew that, if you could keep them out of prison long enough to carry on their day-to-day life, they had a chance of not being entrenched. But once they tasted more than six weeks of prison, it became almost too difficult.
That was always my challenge. Even the ones that were hardened, I’d try my best. I’d look for a relative, no matter how remote. Bail was a better alternative to prison. But in South Auckland, it’s hard because there’s so much homelessness and the houses are so crowded. You might have three or four families in one house. It’s pretty grim.
The first thing I’d try was to get their liberty. And, if they’ve got a defence, if you can find there’s something you can hang on to, then you just have to keep chipping away at it and remembering that you’re doing as much as you can to keep them out of prison. That always was my goal. And it’s a difficult one I have to say.
Have you always been a defence lawyer?
Always. Never prosecution. But I always knew I wanted to be a criminal barrister. I wanted to do trials. It’s scary, though. When you do trials, your clients are generally up for a really heinous crime. Of course, it’s always difficult to put your client in a good light. But if you’ve got something like self-defence or provocation, which is usually only used for murder, then you have a chance.
Often, too, the prosecution is so overloaded that they’re not always able to prepare their cases very well. And if you go through their cases with a fine-tooth comb, you often find that they can’t prove their case.
So it’s not always a matter of whether your client has a defence, but sometimes — often, actually — it’s a matter of the Crown or the police prosecution not having the evidence.
So, as you go through that file, you might be feeling that this is a hopeless case, and then you think: “Hey, hang on. They can’t prove that charge.” So you get excited about that.
At times, from what we see on TV, lawyers can be quite theatrical when they’re presenting their evidence to the jury and the presiding judge. Has that been your style?
You can be as theatrical as you like. But juries aren’t dumb. You still have to have some substance. I’m not a theatrical lawyer. It’s good when you have a strong defence. But sometimes you’re scraping the barrel. There’ve been times when I’ve thought: “There’s no way I’m going to win this.” But there’ve been surprises.
You just have to do your job. That’s all.
Can you share a no-names example of a satisfying case that you deemed a special success?
In 2018, I acted for a young Māori boy whose father was a gang member. His father used to give his mother hidings all the time. That had just become their way of life. One day, the father came home and started giving the mum a hiding.
The children had shunned the gang life. The older son, my client, who was in his 20s, had a really good job, didn’t drink or do drugs, and would always stick around with his mum to look after her.
He got a call to say his mum had been beaten up, so he went home. That night the father came back to the house. The family had locked the doors, pulled the curtains, and the son was yelling at his dad: “Go away, go away.” And his dad said: “If you don’t open the fucking door, I’m going to kill you.”
Then he heard his father go down the driveway. The son said: “Don’t worry, Mum, he’s gone.” But his father had snuck back up. And, as soon as the son opened the door, his father punched him to the ground and got on top of his son and kept punching and punching him. In self-defence, my client stabbed his father, which proved fatal.
The jury came back with not guilty on the grounds of self-defence.
Denise, you regularly deal with some pretty heavy stuff. It’s great to see Māori and PIs coming through as lawyers, doctors, and now in your case, as a judge. What impact do you think it will have on our rangatahi when they look up and see a Sāmoan judge?
I’m going to the North Shore District Court. I can’t sit on the bench in South Auckland because I’ve been there for 32 years and I know too many people. I totally understand why they’ve put me somewhere else.
So I’ll be in a different community. But certainly it’s great that the judiciary is more reflective of our society.
There are all sorts of issues that may make it especially difficult for Māori and Pasifika families to navigate their way through life. What do you think are the most serious?
Oh, there are just so many issues to deal with. But, first off all, people need a safe, warm home. I don’t think it’s easy to be a law-abiding citizen if you don’t have a home. That’s a basic. If you’re on the streets, you’re going to commit a crime just to survive, not because you’re bad but because you have to keep living.
If you don’t have a home, there isn’t much going for you. More housing and then a job so they can keep their home — these are the basics.
Denise, when you look back over the years you’ve spent as a criminal defence lawyer, what stands out for you?
I’ve noticed that, once P came in, the whole landscape changed. There was always a lot of hope before P, but even I get quite depressed at times because it’s destroyed the fabric of our society. It’s been a really nasty drug. Once people take it, there’s a grip on them and it ruins their life. It’s just so hard for them to rehabilitate themselves.
What can be done about it?
I don’t have all the answers. Some of the clients I’ve had were already in prison. They’ve been arrested for aggravated robbery, kidnapping, really serious crimes, and normally P is involved.
So I wait a week before I go to visit them. I’ve learned from experience that, if I go straight away, my clients can be confrontational. You know they’re coming down off P, and even though they ring up and abuse you and ask where are you, why haven’t you come to see me, I wait a week and then I’ll talk to them.
It’s like night and day. Once they’ve come down, they’re much more rational to talk to. They’re more polite and they can see a bit more reason. But, if you go before then, you’re just going to be attacked.
I don’t blame you. Congratulations on your new work as a district court judge. This appointment acknowledges all the work you’ve done and you must be proud of that. What does your ‘āiga think?
They’re rapt. I feel very honoured that I was approached. One thing I’m not looking forward to is sending someone to prison. I hope I don’t have to do it too soon. As a defence lawyer for 32 years and trying all that time to keep people out of prison, it’s going to be tough, eventually, having to send someone to prison.
Even when I’m doing submissions as a defence lawyer and I know they’re going to have to go to prison, I tell my client that it’s too bad and the starting point is prison and it’s this much time but we can try and get it down to this amount. We’re always trying to mitigate their loss.
Now I’m going to have to be the referee and apply the law as best I can without getting appealed too much. I’ll do my best.
Good luck out there, Denise. What’s something that you like to do that’s far removed from what we know of you?
I just like to hang out with my family, to be honest. I find that very grounding and I don’t feel stressed when I’m around them.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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