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2020 conference

Late in 2020, the inaugural conference of Te Matakahi – Defence Lawyers Association New Zealand was held in Wellington. The conference was a sell-out with a large number of defence lawyers from around the country coming together to learn, share experiences and meet other members of the bar. Held at Te Papa, it was a full day of sessions from high calibre presenters. In contrast to other, more formal, CPD events, the sessions were both highly educative but also entertaining and inspiring, and the day was structured to allow plenty of time for kai, kōrero and whakawhanaungatanga amongst members.

Christopher Stevenson from Pipitea Chambers in Wellington, one of the co-founders of Te Matakahi, opened the conference with a practical demonstration on opening statements, making a compelling argument for the importance of opening statements for the defence case.

The next speaker was Bonnie Hoffman, Director of Public Defense Reform and Training for the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers (NACDL). Interviewed via video link by Brett Crowley, the Wellington Public Defender, Ms Hoffman spoke about the initiatives and research her organisation undertakes to benefit criminal defence lawyers across the United States. The American experience is important to New Zealand since we followed them into the tough on crime “war on drugs” mass incarceration model, and both nations are now trying to untangle that mess. Ms Hoffman explained a number of initiatives led by public defenders in the United States, linking with community groups, to make real improvements to the criminal justice system and educate for significant policy changes.

Jonathan Eaton QC gave a compelling account of his work on the Gwaze case and the (mis)use of expert evidence. Jonathan’s passion was evident as he recalled the case and he urged the defence bar to challenge and deconstruct misleading expert evidence. Several junior lawyers commented afterwards that his talk had changed the way they would approach expert evidence in the future.

Before lunch there were two short-fire sessions, first from Luke Ameye of Mātai Chambers in Auckland and founder of Aunoa. Luke presented on his product Aunoa (the Māori word for automatic) which is a document management system designed by barristers. Lucie Scott, Barrister at Quay Legal in Wellington gave an informative presentation on s 106 applications. Her presentation reminded all practitioners of the potentially life changing impact of a conviction, and provided great practical case examples of creative and successful applications to obtain discharges in appropriate cases.

The keynote session featured Supreme Court Justice Joe Williams and Associate Professor Khylee Quince. Their kōrero on the intersection between race and justice was hosted by Echo Haronga from Guardian Chambers in Auckland. Justice Joe laid down a powerful challenge to the defence bar to get organised, get together, and advocate for the transformation the criminal justice system requires. Justice Joe also suggested that the whakataukī shared by Echo Haronga was apt for our organisation. The whakataukī is:

“Ahakoa he iti te matakahi, ka pākaru i a ia te tōtara – Although the wedge is small, it splits the totara tree.”

This proverb is used to describe how a little effort, properly applied, can overcome great obstacles. Justice Joe likened our organisation to the small wedge facing a totara-sized obstacle of changing the
criminal justice system. In doing so Justice Joe indicated the importance of working together as an independent defence bar, and the potential for what we might achieve.

The afternoon featured a session by Rachel Reed QC who spoke on the importance of seeing a case through right to the end, particularly when there have been breaches of rights during the prosecution. She gave a thought-provoking presentation on the determination and skill required to break down a misconceived prosecution, and then obtain some redress by way of costs in such cases.

Elizabeth Hall of Pipitea Chambers, and the other co-founder of Te Matakahi, gave a talk on the state of disclosure problems in the criminal jurisdiction in New Zealand. As with the other sessions, Liz’s ability to use real life examples from her current caseload dramatically illustrated some of the complex issues involved. The session offered practical ideas and approaches that members could take back and try in their own practices.

An absolute treat during the conference was a pre-recorded interview of the Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG by Kerry Cook. Michael Kirby is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia who has relentlessly championed human rights and recently led the United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea. In a captivating and wide-ranging talk, Mr Kirby spoke about the dangers of an obsession with finality in the appellate jurisdiction, the responsibility on defence counsel in the criminal jurisdiction in addressing injustices, and the impact of colonisation on indigenous populations. We were reminded of a common theme in Michael Kirby’s hundreds of reported speeches, which speaks to the ethos of Te Matakahi:

“The enduring obligation [is] to stand up with courage, skill and idealism for the disadvantaged… . I believe that the majority enter the law with a passion for justice and in the hope of righting wrongs. … The effort will sometimes seem forlorn. Many will be the discouragements. But keep of good heart. And refine your lawyerly skills so that a precise mind as well as a generous heart are lent to the service of justice. It is the genius of the common law that every one of us contributes to its mosaic. Individually, idealistic lawyers may lack power. But in concert we are a force to be reckoned with.”1

After a jam-packed and invigorating day of sessions, it was great to be able to enjoy some music in the foyer of Te Papa and to get to know other members at the official launch event. Hon Andrew Little MP (former Minister of Justice) officially launched the Association.
It will be difficult to top the inaugural conference but 2021 is already shaping up so keep an eye out for an email with registration details in the next few months.