Maria Sopoaga

Almost 3 weeks on, it still feels like I haven’t quite recovered from the momentous occasion that was the International Association of Women Judges’ Biennial Conference 2021. With support from the Borrin Foundation, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to attend the IAWJ Conference, founded on the theme of “Celebrating Diversity.” And in celebration of diversity, it seems fitting that almost 43 years to the day that the Orakei Māori Action Committee’s occupation of Bastion Point ended (having been forcibly removed by the NZ Army), I am ready to share my reflections and learnings from the conference.

It was a particularly humbling and proud moment as both a New Zealander and manuhiri to this country that the IAWJ was rooted in kaupapa Māori, honouring Te Tiriti and our visions for a truly bicultural Aotearoa. Spending our first day being hosted by Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, it was not lost on me the incredible significance of such manaakitanga being shown by our hosts to us, members of the legal profession and judiciary. With Bastion Point providing the background, it was a poignant reminder not only of the historically fraught relationship between Māori & the Crown, but also of the incredible potential of tangata whenua & tangata Te Tiriti to work together and effect change.

This provided the perfect context for his Honour Chief District Court Judge Taumaunu to share his model for transformational justice in the district courts – Te Ao Mārama. It was enlightening – in more ways than one – to learn more about His Honour’s vision of a universally available solution-based District Court to improve access to justice and enhance procedural and substantive fairness for all. From the ‘pō’ or darkness of the District Court’s existing model & outcomes, toward Te Ao Mārama - the light of a new, better world for all who seek justice in our courts.

It was a particular highlight that the second day of the IAWJ Conference kicked off with some of Aotearoa’s most inspirational young leaders – Grace Stratton, Pita Roycroft, Sara Ather and Aigagalefili (Fili) Fepulea’i. Grace encouraged us to reframe disability in a way that centres disabled peoples and their needs; Pita reminded us that success and diversity of identity are not mutually exclusive; Sara called for intentional and proactive action against terrorism and racist attitudes; and Fili so poetically captured the very real and immediate threat of climate change facing Pacific peoples. These inspirational rangatahi reminded me of the incredible privilege and platform I have as a lawyer in Aotearoa. With this platform, I and my fellow legal practitioners have the skills and responsibility to be good ancestors and ensure that our mahi supports the voices of our next generation.

I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and remember Judge Zakia Herawi & Judge Qadria Yasini, assassinated in Kabul as they were on their way to their posts in the Supreme Court. It was a timely reminder not only of the privilege the bench and the bar have here in Aotearoa, but about the work that must continue to ensure the protection of women around the world. There’s so much I could continue sharing about the IAWJ conference, but I know I will continue reflecting on the lessons and learnings I gained over the 3 days. It will be an ongoing reminder of the incredible mana of women across the globe, all working toward a common goal of empowerment, protection & equity for women at every level.