NZ Law Society elects first Pasifika woman as president in ‘sea change’

Pasifika lawyer Tiana Epati ... "My vision for the society is to lead culture-change by walking the talk." Image: NZ Law Society

By Te Aniwa Hurihanganui, Te Manu Korihi Reporter of RNZ Pacific

The New Zealand Law Society has elected its first-ever president of Pacific Island descent – and its youngest.

Tiana Epati, a partner at Gisborne law firm Rishworth Wall & Mathieson, will officially take on the role in April next year.

The 43-year-old lawyer has no easy task ahead of her.

A Law Society survey released in May found one in five lawyers had been sexually harassed in the workplace, and one in five had been bullied within the past year.

The findings were highlighted again in The Bazley Report, released in July, which revealed a culture of excessive drinking and sexual harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh.

Epati, who has worked as a criminal defence lawyer and an appeals lawyer, said she was aware the privilege bestowed on her came with enormous responsibility.

“The whole complaints process is currently under review, so what will be really important for the next presidential term is looking very closely at what those recommendations are and ensuring that whatever we put to the council and to Parliament for change has been well thought-out, well-researched and considered,” she said.

‘Once chance’
“We really only have one chance to get this right, so we have to get it right.”

Other challenges for lawyers included stress and anxiety, workplace health and safety and diversity of all kinds and inclusion, she said.

“Diversity is wider than just gender. My vision for the society is to lead culture-change by walking the talk,” she said.

“That means more than just me being president, it means actually ensuring that every part of the organisation has cultural competence.”

Labour MP and former lawyer Kiritapu Allan described her election as a departure from the status quo.

“Tiana is the first Pasifika woman… she’s the first brown person to be elected. I just think it is an extreme indication of a cultural and generational sea-tide and shift which I think the profession has been really seeking.

“In light of the findings and the recommendations from the Bazley Report earlier this year, younger members of the profession want to see things change and I think Tiana embodies many of the principles and values needed to do that.

“And, of course, we can proudly claim her in Gisborne as a local-based practitioner.”

Unique background
Epati grew up in Samoa and immigrated to New Zealand when she was 10. She grew up in South Auckland, attended Auckland Girls Grammar and was the only person in her year to go to Auckland Law School where she completed her law degree.

She said her unique background would benefit her new role.

“I come from one of the smallest regions in the country, so I probably have a unique provincial perspective, but I started in a large law firm in Auckland and I worked in government for the Crown Law Office, so you could say I have had one of the broadest contacts with the profession,” she said.

“For the last six years I’ve been a criminal defence lawyer working in Gisborne where the population is 50 percent Māori. So a lot of my work has been around championing the underdog and certainly talking a lot about the importance of tikanga and cultural context when we come to the criminal justice process.”

Epati will replace Kathryn Beck.

Her father, Judge Semi Epati, was New Zealand’s first Pacific Island judge.

This article is republished under the Pacific Media Centre’s content partnership with Radio New Zealand.

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