Penelope “Lope” Ginnen is the second Sāmoan woman to become a district court judge in Aotearoa. Her appointment in 2019 came 17 years after Judge Ida Malosi became the first Sāmoan, and first Pacific, woman appointed to the bench.
The two have their own history. Ida was one of Lope’s bosses, alongside Ali’imuamua Sandra Alofivae and La-Verne King (also now a judge), at the all-wāhine Pacific and Māori law firm King Alofivae Malosi.
She talked to Teuila about her path to the judiciary.
Talofa lava, Lope. We like to start with family and whakapapa — and you have some interesting strands to yours.
Mālō lava, Teuila. Yes, my mum, Fuatino Siainiu Matalavea, was born in Sāmoa and grew up in Savai‘i, in the village of Lefagaoali’i, Safune. Fuatino was her taupou title from Lefaga in Upolu.
She died when I was three, so I don’t have many memories of her.
Mum’s father was Ben Hur Matalavea — but he was known as Penehuro, which is the Sāmoan version of Ben Hur. And Penelope, my first name, comes from that, although shortened to Lope because Pene is a man’s name.
My middle name, Sasao, is from my grandmother Sasaoileafi, who was named after the volcanic eruption in Savai’i in the 1900s. She was known as a pretty fiery woman — and my family tell me I’m like her when I get fired up about anything.
Through my grandparents, I’m connected to Tufutafoe and Safune in Savai‘i, and Lefaga and Le’auva’a in Upolu. I also hold the matai title of Faumui, which is from Le‘auva‘a, the village of my great-grandmother, Ema.
And your father?
My dad is Tim Heath, and he’s Pākehā. He was born in Papakura — and he had quite an English upbringing. All four of Dad’s grandparents came here as young people from England, and both his grandfathers (Norman Heath and Charles Deuxbury) were competing mayors of Northcote. Their rivalry meant they were quite upset when their son and daughter got together.
But, if you go to Northcote today, there’s a Heath Street and a Deuxbury Street named after my great-grandfathers.
Dad’s father, Peter Heath, was an Anglican vicar — and his mother, Kath, was an agnostic feminist. When they married, they agreed that she would support his role in the church but she’d be honest about her views if anyone asked. Nobody asked. I remember, at church, she’d do a running commentary in my ear during my grandfather’s sermons.
And how did your parents end up together?
Mum came to New Zealand on a scholarship in the 1950s, when she was 14. She went to St Mary’s College in Stratford, Taranaki, and then on to teachers’ training college. And she met my dad in Auckland when they were both teaching at Beresford Street School in Freemans Bay, which isn’t there anymore.
After I was born, they moved to Savai‘i where Dad was the principal of Palauli College. My younger brother, Peter, was born there. And my parents also adopted my cousin Emma (who was six at the time) when her father, Mum’s brother, passed away.
We came back to New Zealand when Mum got sick; she had breast cancer. But the cancer was too advanced by then, and she died in August 1972, nearly 50 years ago. After Mum passed, Emma went to live with an uncle and aunt in Pakuranga. Broke my heart because I adored her, but Mum’s family wanted it that way. And my dad raised me and Peter as a single father, which was pretty rare back then.
We moved around a bit and ended up settling in Waiuku when I was six. My brother and I were the only Sāmoans in town, and with our blond, blue-eyed Pākehā dad, we were very visible.
Being ‘afakasi, we’re quite fair, but I remember looking at my skin and thinking: “Why is it a different colour from everyone else’s?” And I remember very well people’s attitude to us: “Well, at least you’re not Māori.” Like we had some kind of exotic appeal which made us more acceptable.
That all changed when we moved back to Auckland. I went to Ponsonby Intermediate where there were lots of other Sāmoans and Pacific kids, and that was really cool. By the time I was 13, we were living in Kingsland and nearly all the families in our street were Sāmoan or Niuean. I think, at one point, Dad was the only Pākehā there.
When I eventually left Kingsland, 35 years later, we were one of two, maybe three, Sāmoan families left in our street. So it certainly changed over those years.
How were you able to maintain your connection with your Sāmoan family after your mother died?
Well, Mum’s family loved Dad — and he loved them. So we’ve grown up close. They’ve been at every major event. Birthdays, 21sts, weddings, funerals. And when I became a judge, my cousins flew from Sāmoa for my swearing-in. That included Justice Niava Mata Keli Tuatagaloa, who was the first Sāmoan woman appointed to the bench in Sāmoa. She spoke on my behalf at my swearing-in, which was wonderful.
It’s obviously not the same as if Mum had been alive, but our Sāmoan family are an important part of our lives. When Peter was 14, he went to live with Mum’s brother, Taimalie, in Sāmoa for two years. His Sāmoan is really good.
Not so much for me. When we came back to New Zealand, I was three years old and I could only speak Sāmoan — but now my Sāmoan’s quite limited. Of course, that’s caused a lot of angst over the years. I’ve tried many times to relearn it, and bits of it are coming back.
So, I’m among that first generation of New Zealand-born Sāmoans who’ve experienced language loss.
That pain and grief of losing your language and access to your culture brings a particular kind of loneliness — and I was determined that my kids wouldn’t go through that. They went to A’oga Fa’a Sāmoa, the Sāmoan preschool attached to Richmond Road Primary School, and then to its Sāmoan language unit, Mua i Malae. And, once it was set up, my daughter, Leilani, went to Gafoa Le Ata, which is the Sāmoan language unit at Kōwhai Intermediate School.
I’m so happy seeing my children confidently navigate both Sāmoan and Pālagi spaces.
I know for many Pacific parents the law is right up there as one of the most desirable jobs for their kids, but was it something you were interested in?
When I was at school, I wanted to be an airline pilot. So I went to see the careers adviser at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, who told me that the only affordable way to learn how to fly was to join the air force. I needed UE English, physics, maths with stats and calculus to apply, so I did all those subjects. But when I went to sign up, the careers adviser found out that women weren’t permitted in the flying programme. They could only do “non-flying” things in the air force.
I had a big meltdown. “This isn’t fair. That can’t be legal. It’s against basic human rights. There’s no justification for this.”
The career’s adviser just looked at me, and said: “Have you considered a career in law?”
So, that set me on the path. I don’t know why I didn’t challenge the air force policy, which was changed when I was at law school.
And after you graduated, did you go straight into one of those big corporate law firms, where so many law graduates start off?
Yep. I started out at a big downtown firm, because that’s what success looked like at law school. I learned a lot, but it was a competitive, quite toxic, and very Pākehā environment. And after a couple of years, I moved on to work at the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office, which was very different.
I went from having three files of my own at the major firm and helping the senior lawyers work on their cases, to having 100 files all of my own. You just get thrown in and have to do everything. And you’re in court every day, and seeing heaps of people every day. I loved it.
I never intended to be a family lawyer, so I hadn’t studied family law at law school. But, at Grey Lynn, I was doing both criminal law and family law. At some point, it became incompatible to do both — so, I chose to pursue family law.
You’ve been on some pretty big boards — Housing New Zealand and Counties Manukau DHB, for instance. What prompted the move into governance work?
This is what happens to Māori and Pacific lawyers. You get called on to sit on community committees to help out with different things, which I did from the start. And, when I was about 30, I got a call from Vui Mark Gosche, who was the Minister of Housing at the time, asking if I’d be interested in sitting on the board of Housing New Zealand.
It was all quite random. I remember being interviewed by someone from the prime minister’s office — and it was at the Northern Club, so I was feeling completely overwhelmed. I was sitting in this huge wingback chair, being interviewed by this guy, and I was coming up with all these reasons why I couldn’t be on the board the size of Housing New Zealand. And after a while, he said: “You know that it’s us asking you?” Because I was busy disqualifying myself, which I think women do sometimes.
So, I was appointed to the Housing New Zealand board. And that launched a career in governance.
By the time I was appointed to the bench, probably more than half of the work that I was doing was in governance. The boards I was on focused on health, housing, mental health and addictions, and tribal governance.
And it complemented my family law practice quite well. Certainly, the work I was doing in the Family Court informed the board governance — because I was in daily contact with people who were being affected by these decisions.
As a lawyer for children, I often felt like we were mopping up after the fact, coming in as people’s lives were falling apart. The governance work I did came from the other end. It was like lifting your eyes to the horizon and seeing strategically what could be done to try to systemically change the things that made people’s lives so hard.
What became really clear to me was how siloed different parts of the system are. You’d see people’s lives being compartmentalised into different categories because that’s how the system worked. So, something labelled as a “health issue” goes to “health”, then any housing issues get flicked to “housing”. And then you’d have addictions and mental health issues being dealt with by other parts of the system.
But, of course, people’s lives and experiences don’t fit into tidy compartments, so that makes accessing resources and help unnecessarily hard — especially for Pacific, and Māori.
Tell me about your time at King Alofivae Malosi (KAM Legal). As a firm of Māori and Sāmoan women lawyers, it was probably the polar opposite of your first job. And, clearly, that was a hugely significant step in your career. You joined in 1999, became a partner — and five of you from that small law firm have since become judges, which is pretty remarkable.
There’s Ida Malosi, of course, who was the first Sāmoan and Pacific woman appointed to the bench, and La-Verne King (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa, Ngāti Paoa), who was also a founding partner. There’s also Sharyn Otene (Ngāpuhi) and most recently Ophir Cassidy (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Whātua ki Kaipara).
I loved working at King Alofivae Malosi. There was a real emphasis on family there. They’d figured out a way of working where family was accommodated better than anywhere else that I’ve worked — and where our families were all part of the firm.
It was at KAM, as well, where I learned how to bring my whole self to work. It’s where I learned that the pursuit of excellence includes embracing our own identities, as Pacific women and as Māori women. That we have a place in the law, as ourselves.
And it’s where I learned that Māori and Sāmoans can work together. Laverne, Sandra and Ida had figured out how that would work right at the start — and it began and ended with an acknowledgment of Māori as tangata whenua, and also recognising our whanaunga relationships as Māori and Pacific.
And I think that’s been a theme in my work and in my personal relationships since — figuring out our place as Sāmoans in New Zealand, and my place as a New Zealand-born Sāmoan-Pālagi. It also set me thinking about what it means to be an Indigenous woman who is indigenous to Sāmoa and the Pacific but not indigenous to the land that I live in.
Now seems a good time to mention where that Māori-Sāmoan connection has led you — and especially seeing that we’re sitting here in Ōrākei, in the heartland of Ngāti Whātua, overlooking the beautiful Waitematā, where you live with your partner Sharon Hawke.
It’s particularly poignant, too, because of the passing of Sharon’s father, Dr Joe Hawke, a few weeks ago. But it must have been good to see people being reminded — or, in many cases, learning for the first time — of the history of the struggle at Takaparawhau where we are now.
Absolutely. At Joe’s tangi, I learned more about what he and his family sacrificed at Takaparawhau, which in many ways was a watershed for Māori activism.
But I also saw the strength of his legacy. Everyone pulled together. They hosted and fed thousands of people over the course of a week. And everything ran according to the tikanga of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei — on the land that had been regained through a process that began with the Bastion Point occupation.
The day before Joe was buried was May 25, the 44th anniversary of the eviction from Bastion Point. That meant people who came to pay their respects to Joe and the whānau shared memories of the occupation and all that followed. It was beautiful.
My involvement with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei goes back to 1993, when I was at the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office.
We used to do community education, and they’d send me up to the marae to talk to people about their rights — civil rights, access to the Family Court, consumer law. A whole range of things. It was a programme run by the late Josie Tumahai and her husband Danny Tumahai.
When my governance career took off, I was appointed to chair the audit committee of the corporate board of Ngāti Whātua Trust. After their settlement in 2011, Ngāti Whātua established Whai Rawa, the wealth generation entity, and Whai Maia, which focuses on the overall welfare of the people. I was appointed to the board of Whai Maia in 2011, and eventually became its chairperson, from 2016.
What was it like as a Sāmoan woman working in that space?
Such an honour. It did force me to think about my identity — and to be strong in it.
I mean, we do have deep, historic mana moana connections, as people of the Pacific, that pre-date European colonisation. And there’ve been some inspiring examples of Māori and Sāmoan collaborations — for instance with the Mau movement where Sir Maui Pomare and Sir Apirana Ngata supported the Mau leaders, including Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III and Olaf Frederick Nelson when they were exiled here from Sāmoa by the New Zealand administration.
So, that natural alignment and connection that we have did increase my confidence about working in this space. And it really refined my thinking about indigeneity, too.
At the time, I was doing a lot of work in Sāmoa. Ida Malosi had been appointed a justice of the Supreme Court in Sāmoa, and I was invited to participate in judicial workshops about the establishment of their Family Court.
Without a doubt, the highlight of my career. I felt closer to my mother working there. And I was contributing something that I knew to Sāmoa, while learning about the Sāmoan justice system. It informed my work as a lawyer, and later as a judge, and it was invaluable to my work as a director in a tribal governance entity.
Unlike Aotearoa, Sāmoa is governed by Sāmoans, and land is owned by Sāmoans and through customary title. Customary land title rights are protected in the Sāmoan constitution. It’s a fundamental contrast to the setup in Aotearoa.
I felt that even more keenly working for Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, who have been fighting for generations to get their land back, and to uphold their mana whenua status in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Is it a good time to be a judge in Aotearoa? We have Te Ao Mārama and the rangatahi courts championed by the current Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu, and the Pasifika court, set up by Judge Ida Malosi. So there’ve been significant developments allowing for a more nuanced, culturally responsive approach in the courts.
It’s an exciting time to be a judge. It really is. Judge Heemi Taumaunu’s Te Ao Mārama vision is about everyone who comes into the courtroom being seen, heard, and understood.
It’s a good starting point for those of us working in the system. Because, overwhelmingly, the evidence is that people haven’t been seen, heard or understood. Especially our people.
Te Ao Mārama also fits well with our own justice values and principles as Māori and Pacific. For example, if you look at the Sāmoan process of justice — and particularly at ifoga — at the heart of that is the recognition that justice isn’t just about individuals.
A crime has been committed by one person against another, but traditional Sāmoan justice recognises that there are more than just these two individuals involved. The person who committed the crime is part of a family and a group — and so is the person who had the crime committed against them.
So, the ifoga is about resetting the honour and integrity of both family groups and everyone involved. The solution encompasses far more than the individual.
Te Ao Mārama has a similar emphasis, which goes a lot further than the individualised approach of the legal system that we’ve inherited from Britain.
In a family law context, it’s about recognising that families don’t operate in isolation. We’re seeing a much broader participation of extended family members, and recognition by the court of the roles they play. Not just for Māori and Pacific families, but for other groups as well.
In the past, the Family Court has been viewed as a closed court and quite secretive. But we’re intentionally making space for families and their communities to come into the court. We want them to come and participate, to help us find the best solutions for the protection and wellbeing of their children.
Thank you for sharing that. And what about your own whānau?
My children are Sane-Va and Leilani Ginnen. Their father is Jonathan Ginnen and he’s from Talimatau and Vaoala in Sāmoa. His grandfather was among the Chinese indentured labourers brought to Sāmoa in the 1900s, so our kids are Sāmoan, Chinese and Pālagi. I have a stepdaughter, Leone, who is Johnny’s daughter, and she lives in England. She is Sāmoan, Chinese, Scottish and African. My other stepdaughter is Tu Te Kiha, who is Sharon’s daughter.
Tu Te Kiha is Māori (Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Hine) and Sāmoan (Mata’afa and Malietoa). She’s fluent in te reo. Both she and Leilani are studying law, and Sane-Va is a mechanical engineer.
I also have a few more connections on Dad’s side. There’s my half-sister, Fiona Paynter. And also my stepmother, Dr Deborah Heath, whom Dad married in 1997, and our stepbrother, Rupert Ta’avao. His father is Sāmoan and he looks a lot like me and Pete.
You’re sitting at the Manukau District Court, and I imagine the work must get quite heavy at times. What do you do to unwind? Do you have any hobbies?
Since I became a judge, my focus has been on the job and spending time with my family. That’s because of the sheer volume of work and the challenges of operating through the pandemic — the first lockdown was less than a year after I was appointed.
I’m loving waka ama. Sharon lives on the water, so it was inevitable I’d get into a waka at some point. There’s a group of judges who’ve formed a team, and it’s hilarious when we’re all together because we’re so competitive. But it’s exhilarating. There’s nothing quite like being on the water with the sun and wind in your face. And paddling is an indigenous sport!
And, then, living here in Ōrākei been such a wonderful thing. There’s whānau everywhere, and it’s lovely to feel the rhythm of marae life and to live in a community that takes care of its own. I love it.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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