Giving employment law access to justice and diversity

Chief Judge Christina Inglis aims to make a quantifiable contribution to access to justice and enhanced judicial diversity. In her role as Chief Judge of the Employment Court, along with roles on boards and advisory groups, she is working to ensure this comes to pass.

Woman wearing a pink suit with blond hair smiling at camera
Chief Judge Christina Inglis, the first female chief judge of the Employment Court, received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington at its December 2022 graduation.

It is an honour the Wellingtonian was delighted to receive but she says her work is not yet done. There is still progress to be made in improving access to justice and diversity across the courts.

Chief Judge Inglis completed a Master of Laws with Honours at Victoria University of Wellington in 2001. She served as a Crown counsel at Crown Law for 18 years, was appointed to the District Court in Manukau in 2010, and the Employment Court in 2011, and became the court’s first female chief judge in 2017.

For many years she has drawn attention to issues relating to access to justice, rights, and responsibilities in the employment relationship and the impact of changing social norms on the evolution of the common law.

“We are facing particularly acute problems in employment law—such as the cost of pursuing a claim and the time it takes to do it. We need to be sure that what we are doing and how we are doing it is fit for purpose.

“The law doesn’t operate in the ether. It’s connected to resolving human problems. We need to ensure that our courts are doing that in the most effective way they can.”

Chief Judge Inglis sits on the board of the Access to Justice Advisory Group.

Access to justice has two strands— people must have access to the courts and tribunals that uphold their rights, and the content of the law itself needs to be more accessible, with clearly articulated applicable principles “so that the people the law is designed to serve don’t feel they need to get legal advice at every turn”, she says.

“It’s one of the things that wakes me up at 3 am. We know the number of cases coming through to the court is dropping off. What does that suggest? It doesn’t suggest to me that employment relationship issues are miraculously resolving—far from it. It suggests to me there is an unknown, unmet, unidentified, unseen legal need out there which may be increasing.

“If you make it all too hard, too expensive, people give up. Why would they seek to bring their problems to the court if it’s going to take them two years to get there, they have to mortgage their house to pay the legal fees, and they have no job? The chances are they will settle for $3,000 at mediation.

“That’s the sort of issue I think we need to address, and digitisation might present some opportunities.”

Chief Judge Inglis sits on the Digital Strategy (for Courts and Tribunals) Advisory Group and says there are a range of ways technology could be used to support informed and effective participation in the court system.

At the same time, she is aware digital technology may pose dangers—for example, the potential to put a focus on financial settlements when employment legislation is primarily focused on supporting and restoring relationships.

“If the right cases are not coming through the courts, how do we get clarity of the law? How do employers and employees know what their legal rights and obligations are? It is problematic, and inconsistent with the legislative framework, if employment litigation is reduced to a financial exercise, treating the employment relationship as a commodity.”

In addition to equitable access to justice, Chief Judge Inglis wants to see the judiciary better reflect the community it serves. She chairs the judicial diversity committee Te Awa Tuia Tangata, established by the chief justice and heads of bench.

Access to justice and judicial diversity are interlinked, she says, as it is crucial that people see and feel that the justice administered by the courts is accessible to them.

Chief Judge Inglis decided to pursue a legal career after initially completing a Master of Arts with Honours at the University of Canterbury, focusing on pre-colonial history.

“It just came to me. It was an epiphany walking across a bridge in Christchurch. I stopped midway and said out loud ‘I’m going to go back and do law’. People around me looked at me in a most peculiar way.”

The choice was perhaps unsurprising given her strong family ties to the profession. Her father, Don Inglis, was a Professor of Law at Victoria University of Wellington, who wrote the first family law text and numerous other text books. He was a barrister and Queen’s Counsel and later a Family Court judge.

“I have always been interested in the law and no doubt that was dripped through to me by way of osmosis via Dad’s huge commitment to, and love of, the law.”

Her decision also reflected the value both her parents placed on higher education—her mother, Susan, who she describes as “full of integrity and intelligence”, studied French on a scholarship at the Sorbonne in Paris after leaving school and then completed a Master’s degree at Victoria University of Wellington.

In 1988, Chief Judge Inglis moved back to Wellington with her husband, Peter, and they started a family.

Her undergraduate years passed in a “blur”. She was working full time at the then Land Transport Safety Authority and given seven hours a week to attend lectures.

“I was just doing what I had to do to get through. After we got the kids off to bed we would have one hour to study and one hour for renovation work on our dilapidated house. It did teach me to focus and pick out what was relevant and important very quickly.”

The mother of four completed her Master of Laws while working full time and pregnant with her third child and says it was a completely different experience.

“With my Master’s, I was much more reflective and able to think through legal issues.”

The quiet, reflective approach of lecturers, including Professor Gordon Anderson with his “deep understanding of the law in operation”, had a big impact on her, she says.

Chief Judge Inglis maintains links with the University with an annual talk to Professor Anderson’s employment law class. She also takes part in the annual seminar series run by the University Centre for Labour, Employment and Work.

Asked what she is most proud of in her legal career, Chief Judge Inglis says that is a “work in progress”.

“I hope to be able to give a more illuminating answer when I retire … but I don’t think I’m ever going to feel like I’ve nailed it.

“I will be proud if, at the end of my career, I’ve managed to make some sort of quantifiable contribution to access to justice and judicial diversity.”

Access the full version of V.Alum 2022 here.