Laying down the mat: How to achieve Pasifika success in the Law  

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Improving Pasifika Legal Education in Aotearoa project, a collaborative project led by Assistant Vice-Chancellor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, launched its research report yesterday at an event at the Kelburn campus.

four people smiling, with flowers
Dr Mele Tupou Vaitohi, Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i, Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, and Wiliame Gucake
‘Fofola na ibe―Improving Pasifika Legal Education in Aotearoa Report on Talanoa Research Findings and Recommendations’, which follows an initial literature review, summarises the experiences of 130 Pasifika law practitioners—both students and professionals—within their chosen career. The research was undertaken through Talanoa―a traditional, inclusive, and participatory dialogue process—a first-of-its-kind approach for legal research.

“Our findings show that many Pasifika law students and legal professionals are disadvantaged by what is essentially a monocultural legal profession, entrenched with systemic disadvantages for those wanting to enter the profession,” says lead researcher Dr Mele Tuopu Vaitohi, a senior lecturer of Law at Te Kauhanganui Tātai Ture―Faculty of Law and a leading scholar on Tongan constitutional law.

The report presents recommendations for consideration to law schools, the law profession, and Government, while addressing some confronting statistics. Although Pasifika make up 8.1 percent of the population of Aotearoa, only 7 percent of law graduates are Pasifika and only 3 percent of legal professionals and practitioners are Pasifika. In 2021, there were 517 registered Pasifika lawyers, a ratio of just one lawyer to every 802 Pasifika peoples.

“To illustrate our findings and recommendations, we used the metaphor of weaving a pandanus mat, a precious cultural item in many Pacific cultures. This allowed us to weave together some key themes around Pasifika identity and culturally relevant teaching and learning into the report,” says Dr Vaitohi.

The report also highlights the respondents’ perceptions of the lack of educational preparedness of many Pasifika students entering law school, the lack of belonging in law schools and the legal profession experienced by Pasifika, and the conflict between the dominant western culture and Pasifika cultures in learning and professional environments.

“Our research also uncovered the inequity, racism, and harassment suffered by Pasifika in law schools and the legal profession across Aotearoa,” says Dr Vaitohi. “The laying of the pandanus mat symbolises the time for discussion and provides a platform to open the discourse about how Pasifika can be supported to succeed in the law.”

The report makes a raft of recommendations for law schools in Aotearoa, the legal profession, and Government. These include practical steps that can be taken to ensure long-term educational and professional equity for Pasifika students and lawyers.

Finally, the report recommends that the New Zealand Government take the lead in addressing the ongoing barriers faced by Pasifika law students and graduates in Aotearoa.

“We have laid down the mat and offered our recommendations. It is now time to open up discussions at all levels, from garages to dinner tables, to judicial benches, and Cabinet. One strand alone cannot weave a path forward, but our collective efforts can weave a new future for Pasifika in the law. This report is only the beginning of a conversation to be had on the mat, and the project encourages more discussion and research in this area in the future,” says Dr Vaitohi.

The Improving Pasifika Legal Education in Aotearoa project is funded by the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation and was produced by the Pasifika Legal Education Research Hub.

The report was launched by the Rt Hon. Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann GNZM, with opening remarks by Dame Winnie and the Hon. le Afioga Aupito Toeolesulusulu Tofae Su’a William Sio, Minister for Pacific Peoples and Minister for Courts, Associate Minister of Education, Health, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Find out more

Read the full report here: Fofola na ibe―Improving Pasifika Legal Education in Aotearoa Report on Talanoa Research Findings and Recommendations. Or visit the Pasifika Legal Education Research Hub site.