Saturday, April 13, 2024

Scholarship winner tackling bias in public decision-making

Finding ways to use litigation to remedy bias in public decision-making and provide greater recognition of tikanga Māori are the aims of the two recipients of this year’s New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Scholarships.

The scholarships, for outstanding women legal researchers, have been awarded to Charlotte Agnew-Harington from Auckland and Josie Te Rata (Ngāti Raukawa) from Wellington. Both will be studying for Master of Laws degrees in North America.

Charlotte, who graduated from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland in 2017 with a conjoint Bachelor of Laws with Honours and Bachelor of Arts, says: “Issues of bias are readily acknowledged in New Zealand society, but less so in our courts. How can we, as advocates, prove a lack of fair-mindedness? This question sits at the heart of why I want to do my Master of Laws and finding the answer will benefit many litigants who perceive that they have been treated unfairly due to gender, race or other improper grounds.”

Charlotte has four key study objectives: to learn to understand and articulate bias, its forms, causes and consequences; to develop a framework for pleading the effects of bias; to investigate how advocates can ‘prove’ bias in a way that allows judges to recognise it; and to hone her advocacy skills so she can put her new framework to use.

She hopes her research will culminate in changes to Aotearoa New Zealand’s approach to issues of bias in court and in society.

“Accordingly, writing and publishing will be a key focus for me during and following my Master’s. In the future, I hope to use my litigation framework in court to help Aotearoa develop new case law,” she said.

Charlotte is a junior barrister for Michael Heron QC at Britomart Chambers in Auckland and also a tutor in law at the University of Auckland.

Mr Heron, a former Solicitor-General of New Zealand, describes Charlotte as outstanding and destined to be one of New Zealand’s leading lawyers.

“A passion for social justice and a commitment to New Zealand as a whole drives Charlotte in her career and her studies,” he says, adding that her proposed research will be important to New Zealand’s legal system and society generally.

Josie Te Rata graduated from the University of Otago in 2017 with a conjoint Bachelor of Laws with Honours and Bachelor of Science and is an Associate at Whāia Legal, a kaupapa Māori law firm that primarily services iwi and hapū clients.

“New Zealand’s legal system is currently on the cusp of a significant transformation,” says Josie. “The courts are becoming increasing willing to recognise and enforce tikanga Māori both as an independent source of law and as part of the values of our common law. In parallel, the constitutional significance of the Treaty of Waitangi continues to grow, with major legal implications for the Crown and for Māori.

“This period of transformation raises a number of important questions for Māori and for the nation. How can our constitutional arrangements create space for indigenous self-determination, while at the same time developing a legal system that draws on both English and Māori traditions? How can the integrity of tikanga be maintained if it is to be interpreted and applied by existing, largely non-Māori institutions?

“These questions will be central to my proposed study. Afterwards, I intend to return to New Zealand to continue my work as an advocate for Māori clients in private practice. Additionally, a postgraduate qualification will allow me to contribute in other ways, through teaching and lecturing, as well as by contributing to significant policy and law reform projects.”

New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Scholarships honour the country’s first woman barrister and solicitor, who was admitted to the bar in 1897. For 25 years, through these scholarships, the Foundation has supported postgraduate research in law that will protect and promote the legal interests of the New Zealand public.

The scholarships are awarded to postgraduate women who hold a law degree and have been accepted into a postgraduate law course in either New Zealand or overseas.

The scholarships are administered by Universities New Zealand – Te Pokai Tara, along with around 40 others.

Applications open on 1 November each year and close the following 1 March. Information is available on the scholarships’ page on the Universities New Zealand website.

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