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First Māori Employment Court judge sworn in

22 Sep 2023

| Author: Jenni McManus

When Merepaia King (Ngāti Māhanga/Ngāti Te Wehi – Tainui) was sworn in as a judge earlier this month, she notched up two milestones: it was the first time an Employment Court judge had been sworn in on a marae and she was the first Māori judge to be appointed to the court in its 129 years of operation.

It was a beautiful spring day on Saturday September 9 when a strong contingent of friends, whanau and fellow judges turned out at Te Papa o Rotu Marae at Whatawhata for the ceremony, attended also by Tuheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero, the Māori King and the Kingitanga.

“The brilliant sunshine of the day reflected the occasion and intermingled with the sense that all of us present were witnessing something historic and important for our employment law jurisdiction,” said barrister Catherine Stewart, convenor of the ADLS Employment Law committee.

“I felt privileged to attend on behalf of ADLS and to be part of the event. I am sure this occasion will be remembered as a significant milestone in the history of the Employment Court and one that has been a long time in the making.” Judge King, a former Buddle Findlay partner, is only the fifth woman judge to be appointed to the Employment Court. She has been a long-standing member of the ADLS Employment Law committee.

Employment Court Chief Judge Christina Inglis said it wasn’t an easy role for Judge King to take on. “People sit at the heart of employment law and practice and with people comes complexity,” she said. “No two cases are exactly the same. The issues are often under-pinned by competing – sometimes starkly conflicting – rights and interests, and the law flexes and develops as the legislation changes and as society’s norms, expectations and the way in which working relationships are viewed, evolve.

Chief Judge Inglis said an Employment Court judge needed an unusual mix of acumen, cross-disciplinary skills, technical ability and an understanding of the “reality of working relationships, of human nature and its frailties and (from my vantage point, at least) it not infrequently requires very high levels of sheer grit, determination and endurance”.

And, she said, judges needed to be humble. “They need that humility to understand that they may get it wrong, to see the human dignity within every person who appears before them and to take the time and care to deal with each person and each situation as they present, without preconceptions or prejudice. I am confident that Judge King will bring these important attributes to her new role.”

Speaking on behalf of the Attorney-General, Crown solicitor Natalie Walker said Judge King had broken barriers and worked hard for everything she had achieved. “You know the disadvantage that many in our society struggle with, and the unfairness of it. You are conscious of the opportunities that you have had and the responsibilities that come with positions of power. You have used your practice in the law to help and uplift others,” Walker said.

Maria Dew KC, speaking on behalf of NZLS, ADLS, the NZ Bar Association and the Employment Law Institute, said Judge King’s former partners described her as having a strong moral compass for what was right and as someone who had never been interested in the business of law as an end goal but, rather, as a passion for making a difference for those who must engage with the law.

Colleagues had also spoken of the “fierce and steely determination” beneath the judge’s calm exterior, describing her as down-to-earth and with the ability to laugh, Dew said.

Barrister Shelley Kopu, on behalf of Te Hunga Roia Māori, told the gathering Judge King had been raised on a shoestring budget and largely by her mother, who had taught her the value of hard work. After school, she had helped her mother clean the Māori Land Court. “Your appointment is a testament to your strength, humility and resilience,” Kopu said. “It heralds change and reclamation. For all of us.” ■


Jenni McManus

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