Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu. (Photo supplied)

From the vantage point of the netball world, Heemi Taumaunu, if he’s acknowledged at all, is just Waimarama’s little brother. Not that, even in his own judgment, he’d expect much of a rating when it comes to sport.

But, just over 30 years ago when his dad persuaded him to give up his army career and turn to law, Heemi began taking steps that have been leading not just towards more fairness, especially in youth courts, but also to a growing feeling in a number of Māori communities that maybe they should abandon the belief that they shouldn’t ever count on justice in our courts.

Heemi has been in a strong position to encourage positive moves like that ever since 2019 when he became the Chief District Court Judge, at the head of 200 or so district court judges.

And among the steps he took was to sound out the prospects of a teaming up between the law world and marae communities. 

At a critical meeting at Te Poho-o-Rawiri marae in Gisborne, it was a close run thing. But a kuia made a pitch for giving it a go because of what it could mean for the future of their kids.

So, in 2008, there was the first of the Rangatahi Courts — and since then there’s been any amount of work to see that the legal system is way more “culturally” competent than it’s ever been. 

Here we have Heemi chatting with Dale about some of that progress.


Tēnā koe, Heemi. Would you please tell us about your whakapapa? 

I te taha o taku papa, koia nō Te Tairāwhiti. Ko Hikurangi te maunga, ko Waiapu te awa. Ngāti Pōrou te iwi, ko Whāngārā-mai-tawhiti te marae, ko Ngāti Konohi te hapū. 

I te taha o taku kōkā, ko Aoraki te maunga, ko Waitaki te awa. Ko Kāti Huiarapa te hapū. Ko Ngāi Tahu te iwi. Ko Arowhenua te marae.

Ko Heemi Maana Taumaunu tōku ingoa. Nō reira, tēnā koe, Dale.

And where did those names come from?

My father told me that Heemi was the name of one of his friends, and that Maana is taken straight from my dad’s father, Moni. It was one of my grandfather’s middle names. And Taumaunu, my surname, is from Te Tairāwhiti.

Heemi and his father Hone Taumaunu. (Photo supplied)

What can you tell us about your mum and dad?

My dad, Hone Taumaunu, was an educator, and he taught at quite a few schools. I was born in Tolaga Bay when he was the principal of Tolaga Bay Area School.

When I was still young, we moved from Tolaga Bay to Christchurch, to be closer to my mother’s family. My mum, Maire, was of Ngāi Tahu descent. So me and my siblings all went to school in Christchurch. Dad was a lecturer at the Christchurch Teachers’ College for a number of years.

Then he and my mother moved back to Wellington, and he took up an education position in Wellington — and that was where he stayed until he retired. He was a colleague of Willie Kaa and John Tapiata while they worked on the curriculum for the Māori language programme in primary schools.

My mum’s maiden name was Hopkinson. She was a great-great grandchild of Te Maihāroa, the tipuna who led the hikoi from Arowhenua to the place that was then known as Te Ao Mārama, back in 1877. That place is now the town called Omarama. That was on my mother’s Ngāi Tahu side. She also had Scottish and English heritage through her mum and dad.

Mum trained as a nurse in Napier, and she met my father at Waimārama. That was the name given to my older sister, who became one of New Zealand’s famous netball players. 

When we were growing up in Christchurch there was a big emphasis in our family on education and sport. There were some major sporting achievements on the part of my siblings, but not so much me. I was the one who went along and watched.

My brother Kara was a very good competitive swimmer and won many age group and New Zealand open titles. His specialty was backstroke. My eldest brother, William, was a very good rugby league player, and our youngest sister, Ana, has followed in our father’s footsteps and become a secondary school teacher.

Wai was such a star, wasn’t she? Ten years as a Silver Fern — three of them as the captain. And then as their coach. What was it like growing up with a famous netball sister?

It was really cool. We’re all very proud of Wai’s achievements. And now Wai and George’s daughter, Tiana Metuarau, is following in her mum’s footsteps and the whole whānau is very proud of her, too.

Our people held teachers in high regard for many generations. But do you think that teachers now enjoy the same level of respect they did in generations past?

I’m not sure about that, Dale. I haven’t given it enough thought. But I wouldn’t mind exploring something else about that whole concept, because when my father and his brothers went to Te Aute College, there was a major sacrifice on the part of their parents in order for them to be able to fund that boarding school education. They worked very hard and made great personal sacrifices to fund the education of their children.

The same applied to my mother’s parents. They were absolutely committed to their children’s education. And that emphasis on education flowed down to us. We’ve been the beneficiaries.

It’s been a privilege for people of my generation to have had parents who were so focused on ensuring that their children were well-educated. It’s something I don’t take for granted because not everyone had that advantage.

Heemi enlisted at 16 and spent five years in the New Zealand Army. (Photo supplied)

When you left high school, you went into the army. What sent you in that direction?

Despite the great focus that my parents had on education, I didn’t share their enthusiasm for education when I was younger. 

I decided that the New Zealand Army was where I wanted to go early on in life. I couldn’t really help it, because my father’s two brothers (who have now passed on), Uncle Nuki and Uncle Weti, both served in the army. Uncle Weti served in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam. And, of course, Ngāti Porou have a long history of association with the armed forces.

So, when I was 15, I decided that was me — and I was going to do it. And, at 16, I joined up and spent about five years in the army.

I had a rich experience there. I learned a lot about work ethic, loyalty, perseverance and other similar values. This has stood me in good stead through my life.

Where did te reo Māori sit with you, Heemi? Was it spoken at home, or did you pick it up at school or varsity? How did you come to be a fluent speaker of our reo? 

I had a little bit at home, but mainly it was when I went to Victoria University and had the good fortune of having Sir Pou Temara as a lecturer.

Who were your colleagues when you were at Vic?

Some of my whanaunga were just leaving, because I went there as a mature student. Matanuku Mahuika had just finished as I was starting. And James Johnston, who’s now a District Court judge here in Porirua, was just finishing.

I asked them for advice about how to go about doing a law degree, and they gave me some sound advice. You can sum it up in two words: “Work hard.” That’s what they told me. 

There were quite a few of us at that time who were studying law. We had the benefit of regular contact with Moana Jackson. In fact, the first day I went to university, I had to go through an interview with Moana to gain entry to law school using the Māori quota. He and Caren Fox (now Deputy Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court) were on the interview panel at the time.

Overall, I have especially fond memories of Victoria University.

This was during the days of Ngā Tamatoa and the Māori renaissance. They were heavy times and quite challenging from a legal perspective. Did these issues interest you when you were a law student?

Very much so. Moana’s reports on Māori and the criminal justice system (He Whaipaanga Hou) had just come out, and although a lot of the ideas were controversial at the time, some of the fundamental aspects of those reports remain relevant today. Another report at that time was the report on the Social Welfare department that was authored by John Rangihau (Puao-te-ata-tu).

And now we’re eager to see the latest publication that Moana completed just before his passing, and what that will say about the state of the justice system in 2022.

I note that you practised in Wellington and Gisborne as a youth advocate, often in court, and that you’ve taken a particular interest in how our youth are intertwined with our rangatahi courts. What did you learn when you were speaking on our rangatahi’s behalf as a youngish lawyer?

I simply thought the system could be improved. That was the lesson I learned from my experience as a youth advocate, and I took that idea with me when I joined the bench. I was confident we could do something to improve the way that we dealt with young people in that court — and that’s what has happened.

You’re the Chief District Court Judge now. And I’m assuming that there was extra pressure when you move from being the lawyer for a client to sitting on the bench making a decision about someone’s fate?

It’s an interesting transition because, as a lawyer, you have a particular task. And although it’s the same courtroom that you’ll be sitting in as a judge, the role is quite different. And it takes time to adjust to the new role as a judge.

In terms of it being taumaha, I think that it definitely has its challenges but, just like any other role that people play, it’s a matter of doing your best to serve the community.

Heemi (centre) at his swearing-in ceremony as the Chief District Court Judge at Whangara Marae in Gisborne in 2019. (Photo: Gisborne Herald/Liam Clayton)

Is there any room for hindsight in a judge’s life? Do you ever find yourself going through a personal review of the decisions you’ve made? Or, once the gavel comes down, is that it?

We rarely have the luxury of time to engage in that sort of analysis. But you have to remember that the system provides the opportunity for mistakes to be corrected. That’s through the appeal process and through the judicial review process. 

The sentencing system itself has safeguards that have been designed to try and reduce the risk of error. The one thing I’d say about errors, though, is that errors are relatively rare — and that should be of some comfort to people.

The risk is there, of course, and it is real, but it’s not a significant part of the work. There is only a small proportion of decisions that end up being reversed on appeal — a very small proportion of the total work.

As with the parliamentary system that we work under, I suppose there’s a lot of Māori criticism of the judicial system as well. Would there be an improvement if we took some of the mātauranga of our traditional ways and coupled it with the judicial system that we have here? Can you see some merit in merging the two?

There are probably two strands to the answer. The first one would be that, as judges of the District Court, we have to serve the whole community. If, for example, 50 percent of all the people who come before the District Court are Māori, and we want to deal with them in a manner that’s relevant and appropriate, the other 50 percent who are not Māori, also have to be dealt with in a manner that’s relevant and appropriate for them. 

This idea of serving the whole community is something that’s very real, and we have to keep in mind that our role is one that we perform for all New Zealanders. 

But the other strand to the answer is that we definitely have incorporated tikanga and te reo into some of our processes — and we’ve done so with a lot of support from the local communities where that has happened. And it has been a relevant, appropriate and important improvement to the processes that we apply in our courts.

You championed rangatahi courts, many of them based on a marae, and we’ve seen their success. Are you satisfied that what you put together all those years ago is still heading in the right direction?

It’s important to acknowledge all of the judges who’ve championed and helped in the development of rangatahi courts, because there are many of them, from the level of the chief judge at the time they first started, all the way down to the judges who are currently presiding over those courts. 

I’d also acknowledge the people of each of the marae involved in those courts, because these courts couldn’t operate without the full support of the people of each marae.

And, in my experience, that’s the key difference. When you’re sitting alongside a panel of kuia and kaumātua who are able to share wisdom with the young people and with their whānau, it can be a transformative process.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that before the first Rangatahi Court commenced in Gisborne in May 2008, the District Court had not systematically incorporated te reo or tikanga in any substantive way. That wasn’t so long ago when you think about it. 

And that’s been a very successful improvement in the way that we provide access to justice for significant parts of the communities that we serve. It’s perceived as something helpful and desirable.

Kia ora. Our people are always striving for a better legal system. You’ve touched on restorative justice, marae community panels, tikanga interwoven into rulings. Are we witnessing a type of cultural evolution of our legal system?

I think what we’re trying to achieve is justice that’s culturally responsive to the needs of the communities that we serve. 

And, when you think about the current make-up of our various communities, we’re talking about a vibrant multicultural society made up of many different ethnicities, languages, religions and cultures, with two founding cultures bound together by a spirit of partnership that all ties back to the Treaty of Waitangi. So, it’s a very different picture in 2022 than it would’ve been in 1840.

When we think about the way that the law develops, it develops to ensure that it’s accurate and responsive to the needs of each community that our courts serve. So, it’s no surprise to me that our legal system has developed in line with the way our society itself has developed.

Judges who understand our tikanga and our ways may find it more straightforward than those who’ve had little contact with Māori whānau over the years. Is there the skill and expertise on the bench to weave Māori concepts into judgments?

The position of tikanga and the law has been explored and developed by the senior courts over a long period of time. There have been a number of more recent judgments confirming that tikanga is part of the law of New Zealand.

That reflects the state of our nation. We’re a relatively young nation compared with others that have had much longer to develop their legal systems. So, it’s understandable that it’s going to take some time for these issues to be fully explored and settled. 

We’re seeing more Māori appointed as judges. Do we bring something extra to the bench? Or does that not really matter?

The legitimacy of the legal system and respect for the rule of law depends to a large extent on the confidence of the public in the system itself. As I see it, public confidence in the rule of law is enhanced when the diversity of the judiciary seeks to reflect the diversity of the communities our courts serve. For similar reasons, it’s important that the legal profession also reflects the diversity of the communities we serve.

Going back to that interview that I had with Moana Jackson and Caren Fox to gain entry to the law school, that was part of a deliberate and intentional policy designed to bring more Māori into the legal profession. And that’s slowly but surely started to translate into a number of those people being appointed as judges on all the benches. It is a slow process, but it’s happening as we speak. 

Heemi and whānau, pictured at his swearing-in as a district court judge in 2004. (Photo supplied)

Thank you for that kōrero. Sometimes we talk a lot about what we do for mahi, but we don’t talk about things we love to do, and that can sometimes be revealing. What do you do to keep yourself fresh?

I spend as much time as possible with my whānau, especially with our moko, Kaea. And I’m an active diver. I do the things that many people from Te Tairāwhiti do. Diving, hunting, fishing and, where I can, meeting up with whānau, hapū and iwi involved in marae-based activities. So, I do a mixture of all those sorts of things. But looking for the paua around Wellington is always an appealing pastime.

And, of course, it’s a great leveller because everyone’s the same in a wet suit, aren’t they? Thank you, Heemi. It’s been a pleasure.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2022

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