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Opinion: Māori are not going to benefit from the teaching of tikanga Māori in Law Schools


Tukukino Royal Te Whānaua-Apanui, Ngāti Porou He/Him


A couple of weeks have passed since the New Zealand Council of Legal Education announced the compulsory inclusion of tikanga Māori into core law school subjects throughout Aotearoa. It's cool and all to have tikanga Māori taught in law schools and it has been a long time coming. Finally, our own “laws” are being recognised and taught equally to that of Pākehā tort law and property law alike.

At first I was ecstatic at the news as were many of us Māori law students, but then I actually thought about it. Māori students face significant challenges in gaining admission to law school. Generally, entry standards are reserved for the well-educated Pākehā and that is usually the case, with the odd dedicated hardworking Māori and Pacific Islander as the exception.

Determining how, and on what basis, Māori applicants from low-decile schools can be admitted to law school requires careful consideration - “e ai ki te Pākehā”. But it is evident that admission policies and wider access is only part of the issue. Once enrolled, Māori pass rates are comparatively lower than those of non-Māori students and as a result law schools in Aotearoa face the sad reality of not having many Māori admitted to law school. The statistics shared by many law schools in Aotearoa, also share systemic problems. Māori students are significantly under-represented in law schools and only a limited number enter the legal profession. Māori students are disadvantaged in higher education. The same may be said of students from regional and remote locations also known as “the rurals”, as well as those from low socio-economic backgrounds. Of course the connection can readily be made that Māori students often fall into these categories as well. Furthermore, Otago has been teaching law for just under 150 years and within that time Otago has only seen two lecturers of Māori descent.

This is where it gets interesting, who will benefit from the teachings of tikanga Māori? Teaching tikanga in a predominantly Pākehā setting can be a bit risky in the long run. Tikanga Māori will most likely become a concept that will be open to Pākehā interpretation and application. How long will it take for Pākehā to grasp a general understanding of tikanga Māori, before Pākehā begin to promulgate tikanga Māori, or before we see tikanga being applied to Pākehā cases as in the case of Ellis v The Queen, where a Pākehā man is attempting to restore his ‘mana’.

This is what I say, if you’re going to teach tikanga Māori in law school, then let the doors of the law be accessible to everyone and put a stop to the exclusivity of law school. Because at the end of the day, it is not going to be Māori that benefit from tikanga Māori if it is the Pākehā that end up teaching, interpreting or applying tikanga Māori.

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