Even though Leilani Tuala-Warren’s legal career has been entirely in Sāmoa, where she was a Supreme Court judge from 2016 until this year — she’s had one foot in Aotearoa since studying here in the 1990s, and meeting her husband, Aidan Warren, who’s now a Māori Land Court judge. In the last 18 years, they’ve raised their four children while living and working in two countries: Leilani in Sāmoa and Aidan in New Zealand.
So, her appointment this year as a law professor at Waikato University, making her the first Pacific woman in the country to hold a law professorship, has been especially welcome, as she tells Dale in this talanoa.
Talofa, Leilani. Shall we start with you telling us about your names and titles?
Well, I was born and raised in Sāmoa — and I have two matai titles, both from my dad’s villages. I lived with my family close to Apia, but my father is from villages far from the town.
The Tafaoimalo title is from Satalo in Falealili, and the other title, Tologata, is from Pata in Falelatai. My dad, Tualatamaalelagi Misi Tuala, like many Sāmoans, moved into the town area to work and seek a better future. He worked at the hospital in Apia as a dentist.
So you have beautiful teeth?
It’s funny how they say the children of dentists often have the worst teeth. But, in our family, we’ve always taken care of our teeth.
Where did your dad study to become a dentist?
That was at the medical school in Fiji. He would’ve been one of the earliest Sāmoans to do dentistry in Fiji — and then he came and did postgraduate studies in the 1970s in Dunedin, at Otago University.
And your mum?
My mother Aruna is Indian and was born in Fiji. She and Dad met at medical school in Fiji and, when they got married, she moved to Sāmoa. She’s lived in Sāmoa almost her whole life. She’s 75 now and she’s had three children. None of us went into dentistry. I have two older brothers Alvin and Siaki Tuala who are both lawyers as well.
And you used to work for Tuala and Tuala? Maybe the firm should’ve been Tuala and Tuala and Tuala.
It did start off that way, but we thought: “Hang on. That’s a bit much. What say we just go with just Tuala and Tuala? That still gives you the message.”
Kia ora, Leilani. Am I okay calling you Leilani? Is that what people call you?
Yes, that’s fine. Leilani or Lani. Whichever. Yeah.
Let’s turn for a moment to your matai titles. The day they’re bestowed is a very special whānau day, isn’t it?
You’re right. It’s a great honour. The title comes with a position of responsibility and leads to a life of service. Some serve a bit better than others — and I probably haven’t been the best at serving my extended family.
But it is special. It’s a huge honour for any Sāmoan to be trusted by their extended family to carry a matai title. Some even have four or five titles. And what it says is that the family has trust in you to look after the family. Yes. It’s very, very special.
I talk to a lot of high-achieving Pasifika people who’ve come to embody the dreams of their parents and their tūpuna. The pattern has often been a young couple coming across to New Zealand and working hard, often in low-paying and mundane jobs, in the hope that their tamariki would get better opportunities.
But you go slightly against the grain because your pāpā did some study in New Zealand, and then went back home to Sāmoa — and all three of you were drawn to law eventually.
Although my father carried on into tertiary education, there was never any pressure on us to follow in his footsteps. Our parents’ approach simply was that we should do our best — and, if we were happy with that, they were happy too. In a truly communal society, as Sāmoa is, you carry the hopes and dreams not only of your parents but also of your extended whānau and your village. And, when you come away to study, you know their hopes and dreams are with you. And their blessings too.
Economics was my first love when I went to Sydney University, but I was only 20 when I started working at the Central Bank in Sāmoa. My two brothers, however, were both at law school. One was at the University of Technology Sydney, the other was at Victoria in Wellington and later moved to Waikato. And I just naturally followed them into law. I had no great passion for a law career — I just wanted to go back and study. Then, once I began my law degree at Waikato, I started to enjoy it.
Your mum and dad must’ve been anxious.
They were. They were. Especially the first time I left Sāmoa to study. They already had two boys away from home and here I was, their only daughter, still so young (I was 17) and heading off to Sydney University. Yeah, there was plenty of anxiety and checking up. No cellphones at the time, but I got a lot of mail. Coming from Sāmoa, it was an eye-opener and a cultural shock for me. And it just went by in a blur. So fast.
But I thoroughly enjoyed economics. And, as I was studying law, the connection between economics and law became very apparent.
You’ve gone full circle because you’re back at Waikato Uni now, and you’ll be aware how we were very much at risk of losing our reo. Then, in the 1980s, many of our people decided that we should do something about it. And the lounge rooms of Aotearoa at times became kōhanga reo — and then kura and wānanga followed on. It’s been an amazing revitalisation strategy. But, for the most part, Sāmoans still maintain their reo. How important has that been to you?
We don’t think much about it when we’re in Sāmoa because you’re surrounded by the language all the time — and you’re speaking the language a lot. And, coming here for law school, I’ve been impressed. I was studying law with a lot of local Pasifika students who were born in New Zealand and who’ve lived their whole lives here. And yet they’ve managed to hold on to their language, to their gagana Sāmoa.
I’ve been impressed by that, but I’m equally impressed with how many people can speak te reo Māori now. When I was here in the early ‘90s, I met my husband, Aidan Warren, who is Māori. That was here at law school when he’d just come out of Te Aute College. He was one of the few who could speak Māori — although, as he always says, “not well”. But he could converse in te reo Māori.
I’ve been back here since April, and I’ve been very impressed with the way te reo is heard everywhere around us — on the television, on radio, in pop songs. This is very different from the situation in the early 1990s.
Waikato University is a strong Māori learning environment, partly because of the numbers of our people who live in that rohe. And I suspect that some may have asked you to consider bringing elements of culture into the legal studies.
The thing that I loved about the law school here at Waikato is that, from day one, the bicultural focus came across in a big way — and I’ve felt very much at home with that. It was such a homely environment because you were being taught it and you lived it.
And, in the early 1990s, while they were bringing in the Māori context, a lot of us Pasifika students — not that there were many of us at that time — felt very much at home. And, when I left here, I took that away with me. And I’ve watched, with interest, how the cultural elements were then incorporated into the New Zealand legal system.
For example, there are the cultural reports that are provided when someone is sentenced. When I did my master’s here, I looked at ifoga, which is the dispute resolution process that we use in Sāmoa where the courts take that into account in sentencing.
And likewise, the cultural reports give some context and background to the offender, and I thought that was an excellent development in New Zealand’s legal system, especially in the criminal law system. It’s important to understand the offenders in the context in which they were born, raised and live.
The Act Party want to end cultural report writing and scrap the Ministry of Pacific Peoples and, like National, the Māori Health Authority. National will cut funding to the cultural reports too. We won’t go down that political track just now.
But, Leilani, what is the risk if our legal system doesn’t evolve? People evolve, countries evolve, and we’ve come to understand the benefits of weaving cultural thinking and traditional practices into our courts where it wasn’t before.
As well as cultural reports, we’re establishing community panels, restorative justice and rangatahi boards — and we’re changing the face of our legal framework. What risks are we taking if we don’t evolve our legal framework when communities are evolving?
In Indigenous law, there’s Māori tikanga, there’s the fa’a-Sāmoa, and there’s the Tongan way and the Fijian way, and so on. And, just this morning, I had a conversation about how Indigenous cultures have solved disputes. Before Christianity and before colonisation, there were ways of bringing harmony and peace to societies.
There are so many good ideas and methods that the New Zealand legal system can draw on from what Indigenous cultures bring to New Zealand. There’s what is offered by our tangata whenua — and what is brought in by our Pacific neighbours about how disputes are solved, and people are healed.
I’m blessed because I now feel that New Zealand is my country. And I think we should incorporate what’s appropriate and good from all the people who come and make New Zealand their home. I know that’s not easy, but it’s important that the law remains relevant to the people who live here. That’s of utmost importance, in my mind.
Are you being influenced by some reading or thinking that could help us understand what could be, rather than just looking at what we’ve got at the moment?
When I talk about this, I’m talking from my life experience in Sāmoa. I’ve lived and breathed that for the last 50 years, so it’s like second nature for me.
And I couldn’t help you with any readings on pre-colonisation and pre-Christianity either because, as soon as those things came in, Sāmoa adopted them. So now it’s hard to separate our Christianity from our cultural values because they’ve been intertwined and woven together so tightly that the two can’t be neatly separated anymore.
But there are still elements of our traditional culture in Sāmoa where there’s a dual legal system of sorts. So we have customary law in the villages where the chiefs regulate and impose the village rules on the one hand — and in the town area, there’s the court system, which is where I sat for 10 years.
Trying to bring the two together is something that the judges contend with every day. And that’s not easy because, by the time people come to you in the courts, they’ve already been penalised by the village system — the customary law system.
It’s something that I experienced when I was on the bench trying to reconcile customary law system with the court system.
If you found yourself in trouble, Leilani — not that I think you ever would — but if you did, would you rather front up to the council of chiefs, or to the court?
That’s an interesting question, Dale. Oh gosh. It depends, because when you’re in front of the village council, you’re not there alone. You may be sitting there by yourself, but you carry your family with you. And, when you’re being penalised and you’re experiencing shame, you’re not experiencing shame alone. Your family is also publicly humiliated.
Sometimes, I think it’d be best just to sneak into town and appear in court by yourself, not in that communal setting. Perhaps that’d be the way to go. But then, without that communal shaming, what is the deterrent? Because, if you put your family in front of the whole village and, if you’ve broken village rules, hopefully, you’ll be deterred from doing that next time because your whole family feels the shame. And perhaps the shame isn’t as deep when you appear in court.
So, yeah, it’s weighing up those things, Dale. Do I want to bring my family into disrepute and shame by appearing in the village where everybody there is sitting in judgment? Or should I sneak into the town area and go to court there? That’s a hard one.
I also wonder if you, a proud Sāmoan woman, are at all uneasy about working in a predominantly western court setting.
As you know, the colonisation of Sāmoa, strictly speaking, ended when New Zealand left in 1962 and we became independent. But then this fully independent nation kept the western system. I’ve often asked myself why, seeing we were now self-governing, and we could have chosen to go back to the ways of our elders.
But Sāmoa chose not to go back. And that’s because there are some relevant and important structures offered by the western system. For instance, we’ve kept the court system and we’ve kept the voting system.
In effect, everybody who’s working in government is working in that western system. But there are ways that you adapt that to your community and your culture. And there’ve been many examples, in the last 15 years, where we’ve adapted a lot of the laws that we inherited from New Zealand. We’ve adapted them to be more suitable to Sāmoan culture and traditions. Our constitution, for example, which we’re now starting to mould to suit our society better.
From what I understand about what happened to tangata whenua in Aotearoa, there were one or two generations where the thinking among Māori was that they needed to become well-versed in Pākehā ways, and they needed to be able to speak English fluently.
The same thing happened in Sāmoa. I recall going through intermediate school in Sāmoa where the focus was on getting us all to speak English. And, if we spoke Sāmoan at school, we were put on detention. So, I see a lot of parallels with the tangata whenua in New Zealand, because I hear from my mother-in-law the same thing happened here. There was this push to just be more Pālagi, as we call it. And to know the ways of western societies.
But now we’re reverting to valuing our language. We’ve been a self-governing country for more than 60 years, but we were imposing on ourselves all these ways to become more western and become more Pālagi rather than finding value in our Indigenous culture, customs and values. And, over the last 20 years or so, there’s been a renaissance, so to speak, in our language and in our cultural practices.
It’s interesting, though, that we still went through an era when we tried to lessen the importance of our cultures and our language in favour of everything western.
You’ve come full circle, Leilani. You’re back at Waikato University, as a law professor, but we should acknowledge your 10 years of service in the court system in Sāmoa. Now you’re in Aotearoa again. And I know you — you can take the wahine out of Sāmoa, but you can’t take Sāmoa out of the wahine. Now, with all that experience, what are you hoping to share after garnering all your experience over the years?
Waikato University is probably very different from when I studied here. But I think it’s critically important that we have somebody to guide our students. As a Pasifika student, you face unique challenges. You’ll be homesick. You’ll feel isolated. If you come from a tightknit family, going away to study is a daunting and anxious experience. And it’s important that there’s someone you can go to and who’ll understand what you’re going through.
Aotearoa is my community now and I’m trying to help Pasifika students to advance their study of the law, if they’re already in law school, and help them complete their degree. And, through teaching law here, I’m hoping to bring in more of a Pacific flavour to the law studies.
No doubt, you spend an inordinate amount of time on your academic work. But what do you do which helps give you the lift, the strength, and the focus you need for all your mahi? What strengthens you amid all of this, Leilani?
Dale, I’m not a very sporty person. So I won’t be able to tell you about hair-raising mountain climbs or anything like that.
My husband and I and our four children have lived apart in two countries for 18 years. Aidan has lived in New Zealand, while I lived in Sāmoa with the children. And when each child started high school, they moved to New Zealand. Eventually, I was left with the youngest, who is nine years old, in Sāmoa.
We lived apart for many reasons. Our work wasn’t the most important factor — our families were, and looking after them was our main incentive. My family lived in Sāmoa and Aidan’s family lived here. And it’s only since April this year that we’ve lived together. So, I’m especially enjoying having my family together. That’s my special joy these days.
And I thank God for all his blessings and his timing that has brought me here to Waikato again. My mum is back in Sāmoa — and my brothers and all their families and my whole extended family. So it’s not lost on me that I’m here with their hopes and their dreams and their prayers.
I don’t take that lightly, and that’s what keeps me motivated to carry on doing what I’m doing to serve my community, which is now Aotearoa, and to give back, in whatever small way I can, to a country that has given me such a lot — not least a husband! So, yeah, that’s my inspiration outside of work.
Tēnā koe, Leilani. This has been a lovely kōrero. Thank you. Aidan is a Māori Land Court judge, but you’re a Supreme Court judge in Sāmoa, so that would make you the boss. Isn’t that right?
Yes. I should be the boss. You’re quite right there, Dale. I think I’ll go home and tell him that too.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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