Next April, Tiana Epati, 43, starts a three-year term as the president of the New Zealand Law Society. Women haven’t often had that role. Only three so far among the 30 presidents since 1897.
And it’s been even rarer for someone with a Polynesian whakapapa. Like, none, until Tiana’s election last month. Tiana is Sāmoan on her dad’s side, and Aussie Pālagi on her mum’s. But her rapid rise through the legal ranks since she completed a BA (Philosophy and History) and LLB, in 2000, has been no surprise to her peers or teachers. And they won’t be expecting any less momentum in the years ahead.
Here she’s chatting with Dale about her past — and about some of the hopes she has.
Kia ora, Tiana. Thank you joining us on E-Tangata — and congratulations on your appointment as president of the New Zealand Law Society. Now, as far as I know, you have a whakapapa that’s quite different from any of your predecessors.
That’s true. My father, Semi Epati, is Sāmoan from Falealupo in Savai’i and Sale’imoa in Upolu. And he named me Tiana. It’s Sāmoan for Diana. But my mum, Trish, grew up in the outback of South Australia. Her father Gordon ran a sheep station out in Broken Hill.
She later went to boarding school in Adelaide, but when she was 19, she set off on her O.E. And she found herself in Dunedin in the early 1970s where she met Semi, a young law student from Sāmoa, and was quite taken with him.
So her O.E. halted there, and they ended up getting married in Adelaide. And, when Semi finished his law degree and wanted to go back to Sāmoa, she went with him. She is your typical blonde, green-eyed Aussie. And there she was, living in the village in Sale’imoa when I was born in 1974.
Amazing. I bet she’s an interesting woman, your mum. But it’s your dad’s choice of profession that’s influenced the path you’ve taken. How did he come to make that choice?
Well, as a boy, he went to Sāmoa College, where he met a young New Zealander, Bruce Robertson, who was there on VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad). Bruce went on to become a High Court judge. But, when he was at Sāmoa College, he helped teach Dad English. And he spoke to Dad about his plans to head back to New Zealand and go to law school.
So Dad’s interest first came from this VSA volunteer English teacher. Then, when he’d been awarded a scholarship to Otago University, he talked to a careers advisor about doing a law degree there. And he was told that, if he wanted to help people, that kind of degree would be really useful. To Dad, that sounded ideal, because he was very much someone who wanted to help his own people and others.
Dad was the first to go to university in his family. And that began with him getting a government scholarship and going to Waitaki Boys’ High to get a better handle on his English. And then he was off to Otago.
And, of course, he went on to become our first Pasifika judge in Aotearoa. I can’t help but think back to the ‘70s when there was a somewhat dismissive attitude towards the new arrivals from the Islands. They were called “fresh” – fresh off the boat, and all that routine. And they copped criticism because their English often wasn’t up to scratch, even though, in actual fact, they were bilingual people whose language eclipsed most of those providing the criticism.
Did your dad ever speak to you about the attitudes he encountered in those early days?
Very rarely. It was Mum who would talk about what people had said, or the hard time that he got. It’s not that it didn’t affect him. It’s just that he didn’t believe in complaining about it. It was sort of like: “Well, what can you do about it?” So the best answer was to be a success. He didn’t believe in making excuses. It didn’t matter how hard it was. You just put your head down and kept moving forward.
But Mum was the one who’d get upset about it. She was very defensive of him. But he’s quite a happy-go-lucky, positive person. And he didn’t want me to inherit any kind of hangover from that treatment, either. Or feel that you were a second-class citizen or second-rate student. So he always spoke positively about his time at Otago University. You’d never get him to say otherwise.
What about your schooling? Did you start off in Sāmoa?
Yes. In Apia Primary. We came to New Zealand when I was 10. Mum separated from Dad and she was living in Grey Lynn. So I went to Ponsonby Intermediate and then on to Auckland Girls’ Grammar. Then from AGGS to Auckland Law School.
What memories do you have from those AGGS days?
Well, I had a great history teacher called Sheryl Offner. She was amazing. Just a wonderful, flamboyant teacher. Early on, I think it was in the fifth form, she said: “You’re going to get a scholarship pass in history. You’re going to get an A Bursary. Then you can choose to do whatever you want at university.”
I didn’t believe her. I was a relatively okay student, but not in the top five percent in the country. Then, when I sat seventh form history, she was outside in her car, waiting for me to come out and say how it went.
I remember walking out and telling her: “I’m sorry. You’ve put a lot of investment in me, but I haven’t got the scholarship pass that you were thinking of.” However, when I got my exam results — and this was in the holidays by then — I rang to apologise. I said: “No, you were right. I got a scholarship pass and it’s because of you.”
Certainly, she was responsible for my history mark which, I think, was 96 percent. And that got me into law intermediate at Auckland University. Her belief in me, when I didn’t believe in myself, was everything.
That story is a reminder of the old saying: “You never know in teaching where your work might finish.” So there you go. I’m pleased that you acknowledged her and the school. Next step, law school at Auckland University. But was it always going to be law because of your dad’s connections?
I think I was set on the idea of law from really early on. You ask my parents. They say from the age of five, I was saying I was going to be a lawyer. And you couldn’t shake that. I was incredibly determined about that.
When we lived in Sāmoa, Dad did some pretty landmark cases. There were constantly people coming to our house, not able to pay their bills. Except, perhaps, with chickens. Another man turned up one day with a cow. Dad would say: “That’s okay. That’s very nice of you. Thank you very much.”
He was all about helping people who were in need. He used to have this saying: “If you start something, finish it. But if you ever find yourself in the middle of something you didn’t start, and someone needs your help, don’t ever turn your back on them.”
For me, that epitomised the lawyer that he was. He had this really strong work ethic, but it was also about compassion and making sure that you were serving your community. So I grew up with those values and what it meant to be a lawyer.
All lawyers in this country are exposed to aspects of the Treaty — and we can’t help being aware of the incarceration rates. And also being aware of the role that colonisation has played in the destiny of Māori people. The loss of land, culture, and language left many people bereft. Has that been a significant influence in your work as a lawyer?
I don’t think our criminal justice system has historically been responsive to it. But that’s starting to change. And my view is that the Law Society, as an organisation, needs to be a responsible Treaty partner. I see that as a responsibility we have, an obligation on those of us leading the profession. I’ve always seen the Treaty as an incredibly important foundation document for our whole society. But that hasn’t been borne out in what’s happened over the last 40 or 50 years.
Is it fair to expect all who graduate with law degrees in this country to have a level of cultural competence?
Yes, I think that’s a fair expectation. We’re a multicultural society but we have bicultural foundations. And I think it’s absolutely fair to expect that.
Let’s turn now to your elevation to the presidency of the New Zealand Law Society. Can you tell us, please, how that came to be?
Well, it wasn’t part of my career plan. What happened was that I came to Gisborne after being a Crown prosecutor for well over a decade. And I changed sides to the defence, away from the comfort of the Crown network.
Gisborne hadn’t had its own resident District Court judge for 15 years, which meant there were problems and delays from time to time. For instance, there was an issue with a client who’d been locked up at the police station and we couldn’t access a judge and make the bail application for a whole week.
I thought that was appalling. But I was told that this was just a one-off example, everything was fine, and that Gisborne didn’t need its own judge. And I was also told that, if I didn’t like it and wanted to do something about it, I could become president of the Gisborne branch of the Law Society.
So I said: “Fine. I will.” And I did.
The whole point of me becoming president was to fix what I saw as an issue with judicial resourcing. That’s what I focused on. And it was wonderful that, in my last term as branch president, I was able to welcome our first resident judge, Judge Cathcart. And now we have a second judge, Judge Raumati. They’re both much loved in this district, and very busy.
In my time as branch president, I worked with the national office, who are a very impressive group of people and who, day in day out, do all this work that a lot of people aren’t even aware of. So, when I was encouraged to take the next step and apply for the board position for the Central North Island, I did so — and got that unopposed. Really enjoyed that role, too.
Then, with the national president’s office becoming vacant, I had to make a decision about whether I should finish at the board level or go for the big chair. One of the things that we’d often talk about, as a challenge for the profession, was the lack of diversity and inclusion. That was where everyone really wanted change. They recognised that the profession doesn’t represent our community.
And so it was like: “How do we drive diversity and inclusion?” I was one who’d always say: “Well, look at the council table. Look at the council presidents. As far as we know, we haven’t had any Māori or Polynesian person in a president’s role in almost 150 years.”
We’d had only three women. And, if you want to drive diversity and inclusion, you have to walk the talk yourself. So I’d often turn it on the organisation and say: “You have to take a look at yourselves before you can tell the profession to be more diverse and inclusive.”
I wanted to see the wall of presidents change, and I wanted to see change generally. For me, at the time, it seemed like even daring to run for president was an enormous mountain to climb. But I just thought that sometimes you have to be the change you want to see. And I thought that, if I try and don’t get it, at least I tried.
Five months ago, I started my trip around the country — seeing all the branch councils, all the sections, large law firms, the New Zealand Bar Association. And I told them what my vision was for the future.
And then, yeah, here I am, president-elect.
“Accidental president” doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it? In some ways, though, that’s what it feels like. But I was driven by the work, the mahi, the cause, to make things better. Initially, it was to improve things for Gisborne and that got done. Then it was: How do we make things better for the profession as a whole?
Look at all these challenges — access to justice, diversity and inclusion, workplace respect, and dignity. All those things mattered to me. So it made sense to put myself up and say: I want to lead that change.
There it is. That’s the story.
Your work life as a lawyer has included significant periods as a prosecutor and as a defence counsel. And I assume that being exposed to both sides of the situation has been a real benefit.
I think it’s a benefit for me as a lawyer, and as a person. But it’s a special benefit given that the next big piece of work for the Law Society will be looking at reforming our regulatory complaints process. Dame Silvia Cartwright headed a working group who’ve reviewed our regulatory system, with a view to making it more effective and fit for purpose when it comes to unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.
And, when you’re looking at reforming a regulatory process, it’s very helpful to have not just a criminal justice background but one which involves both sides. It becomes more difficult if you’ve come from only one side because your bias to one side or the other can feed into your decision making.
So I feel that it’s quite helpful that I’ve done both sides. I understand the balance that needs to be struck. And that’s particularly valuable with the government looking at reforming the whole criminal justice system because of the concern about the high incarceration rates for Māori and Pacific Islanders.
So, in terms of providing input into that reform project, I feel like I’m in a good place to lead because I know it first-hand. I’ve been at the coalface.
Some of the strength you bring to your new role is that you’re Pasifika woman, you’ve got kids with tangata whenua bloodlines, and you’re based in a provincial area. Your tamariki have the Mahuika bloodlines, too, through marrying Matanuku Mahuika. Over the years, we had a lot to do with Api, your father-in-law. He was a real mover and shaker of Ngāti Porou politics — and beyond. How did you come to link up with that whānau?
Well, I worked with Te Rau Kupenga at Meredith Connell. We became great mates, and he invited me to come to Gisborne for the summer break. I’d met Api in Auckland several times through Te Rau and thought he was an incredible person. Anyone who met Api was struck by his charisma. He was a man with enormous mana.
Just before I arrived in Gisborne, someone warned me that Api thought I’d be perfect for his son. “When you get there, you may find gentle matchmaking going on.” So I arrived, having heard about Matanuku, this son of Api’s, this prominent lawyer in his own right who’d just started his own law firm in Wellington.
Suffice to say, the Ngāti Porou sense of matchmaking is not very gentle at all.
But Ma is an incredible lawyer and a leader in his own right. What wasn’t to like? I think I fell in love with Ngāti Porou first, through Api, and then Ma separately, just as a really lovely human being.
So, yeah. I think that’s all I want to say about that?
And I think what you’ve said is lovely. Thanks for that. When we look at the legal fraternity, there are some very principled people that we’ve crossed paths with. People who’re working to make our justice and political systems better reflect the needs of our communities and incorporate a bit more of our taha Māori or taha Pasifika. Who would you identify as some of the movers and shakers, and those with challenging minds who’ve impressed you in the legal world?
The Chief Justice, Sian Elias, has always been someone who, particularly in criminal justice, has held a strong, firm belief in rights. She’s always been someone who’s encouraged a better understanding of te ao Māori among the judiciary. She’s a wonderfully principled and inspiring lady.
Having Joe Williams in the Court of Appeal, in my view, makes all the difference, too. And then you’ve got wonderful judges like Justice Whata and Judge Wharepouri and Judge Moala.
There was a case in the news the other day where Judge Moala had given a quite sizeable discount on sentencing for “systematic deprivation” of a Māori woman for her very tragic background that is not dissimilar to a lot of criminal defendants that we come across.
It was the biggest discount that had ever been given. The Crown appealed that to the High Court. Justice Whata was the judge. He set out, in quite a lengthy decision, what systematic deprivation of Māori really was. He really set out the history of it, how that fed into sentencing. How it wasn’t a race-based discount — it was a discount based on context. Not just sentencing people with blank faces or purely based on what they did.
So those judges, who’re really pushing the boundaries, are, for me, the real heroes right now. That view isn’t universally held among the bench, but they’re being quite daring in saying: “No, we have to look at things differently.” And they’re doing it on a principled basis. And it’s the first time we’re seeing judgments like that.
Certainly, in the Court of Appeal, my view is that the presence of Joe Williams is having an influence on the way the judges up there are thinking, because we’re seeing judgments that are taking judicial notice of concepts like whakawhanaungatanga and the importance of whānau.
The judges are being educated, I think, which is really hopeful.
Looking forward, what goals have you set yourself? You’re the Law Society President now. But perhaps you’d like to follow your old man’s lead and end up as a judge.
I’m not sure about myself being a judge. If that happens later on, it does. What I’d like to be able to do is encourage other Māori and Pacific Islanders, all sorts of people with all sorts of background, to be putting themselves forward for these types of roles.
So it’s less about me and more about others stepping up. Daring to dream. Daring to see themselves in spaces that they may not have thought about before. Like President of the New Zealand Law Society. Like District Court judge. Like High Court judge. Like Court of Appeal. Maybe Chief Justice, one day.
It’s great to have this role, but it won’t mean much if, over the next 20 years, we don’t see anyone else coming through the door and rising up through the ranks. It has to mean something. And the only way it’ll mean something is if this next generation and the profession really push the boundaries.
Obviously, you invest a huge amount of time in your work. But there must be other elements in your life. Like what? Paua diving? Origami?
As soon as I arrived in Gisborne, I hired a surfing coach. Learned to surf. I’ve got a longboard — and when I’m not surfing and the kids are out on their bikes and scooters, I ride a skateboard to keep up the balance skills. People in my neighbourhood often see me skateboarding with the kids — Umuariki and Kuraunuhia — up and down the cycle walkway. Or out on my longboard at northern Makorori. That’s what I do to wind down or on weekends.
Skateboarder. I would never have picked it. But there you go. Good to talk with you. Thanks for sharing your whakaaro about your life. And all the best for the next couple of years with the Law Society.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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