Language & Law with Maori Justice Joseph Williams

Apr 4, 2018

Maori Justice Joseph Williams is the International Jurist-in-Residence at the University of Hawai'i law school.
Credit Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

New Zealand’s highest ranking Maori judge is visiting Hawai’i. Justice Joseph Williams is the first fluent Maori speaker to be appointed to the New Zealand Court of Appeals. His visit comes as Hawaiʻi grapples with its own issue of native language in the courtrooms. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Justice Joseph Williams has seen his Maori language gradually find a stronghold in New Zealand courtrooms.

“All judges are required to do an introductory course in Maori. All judges at all levels,” says Justice Williams, “The courts are opened and closed in Maori in all courts in New Zealand. And quite regularly the lawyers will stand and introduce themselves in Maori, and they donʻt have to be Maori to do that.”

He says the country is much more embracing of Maori language now than it was a generation ago. He recalls growing up singing the national anthem exclusively in English until it began being sung in Maori and in English at rugby matches in the 90s.

“Now really all major sporting events anywhere where the national anthem is sung, it is sung in Maori and in English,” says Justice Williams, “No one dictated that that should be so. There was no proclamation by any public official to say that the national anthem will now be sung in two languages, first in English then in Maori. It just happened that way, organically.”

But he says it’s far from perfect.

“And not everybody’s on the boat. There are people who say we shouldn’t do this and its separatism and the language of New Zealand is English, it shouldn’t be Maori. It’s a waste of time and if we’re going to learn a language it should be Chinese, or Spanish, or Japanese or something like that,” says Justice William, “But you know that voice which would have been a mainstream voice a generation ago is now being shouted down by the new generations.”

A generation that includes Justice Williams. Last December, he became the first Maori and first fluent Maori speaker to be appointed to the Court of Appeals.

Justice Williams is the International Jurist-In-Residence at the University of Hawaiʻi’s law school.