New Year, Momentous Times, Heemi Taumaunu


Greetings fellow Clubbies and happy New Year. By this time, as Cadets, we would have been either searching for the tin of tartan blanco our wonderfully caring seniors instructed all the new snots to find, or  we were back in harness as seniors or veterans trying hard not to forget what happened during Xmas leave.

History has already marked this year’s Xmas leave/holidays as one which will be hard to forget. If, like me, you have been glued to the telly watching the shenanigans in the world’s greatest democracy, you will have been waiting for 20 January for the wall-banging headache you may have been experiencing to lessen in intensity. I don’t hold out much hope though – I have just read that gun shops across ‘Merica are running out of ammunition ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration. (All the secret squirrel readers of this last paragraph – don’t put me on a watch list because I used the words “ammunition” and “inauguration” in the same sentence. I live in NZ, land of the nearly-Covid-free, and Kiwis literally can’t fly anywhere, except sporadically to some parts of Oz – that’s Kiwi slang for Australia, not the place that Dorothy went to and found wizards and witches, although they could be the same.)

In my humble opinion, the troubles in the States result from electing a President in 2016 who, along with a kit-bag full of dirty washing, had a laundry list of failings that would fill a washing machine many times. He continually played loose and fast with not only the truth and facts, but also with the USA’s Constitution – to the point where he incited an insurrection (you couldn’t make this up if you tried). In NZ, we don’t have a single written constitutional document like the USA, but we do have a constitution which is spread across a range of formal documents, decisions and conventions. These in turn are informed and underpinned by our special and unique Treaty of Waitangi. The whole shebang includes a judicial system that, unlike the USA’s, is independent of its Government (strange but true!).

In our tribute below we salute Heemi Taumaunu, an ex-Cadet who in 2019 was appointed Chief District Court in our judicial system, the first Māori to hold this position. Have a read and see how Heemi is shaping justice in NZ to perform in a better way for Māori, whose members are over-represented in court sentencing.

Judge Heemi was not the first Taumaunu to become a RF Cadet – some of you will remember his Uncle Paul (RIP), who was a Barrowclough Class entrant in 1965.

Tribute – One of Our Own

Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu, Webb Class 1984


Swearing-in Ceremony for Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu, Whangara Marae, 19 October 2019. The Chief Judge was sworn in by the Chief Justice of New Zealand, the Right Honourable Dame Helen Winkelmann.
This is a remarkable story of a boy who, after joining the Army, submitted to his father’s urging and reluctantly left to become a lawyer in order to better serve his people.  As you will see that boy exceeded his father’s dreams to become the country’s most senior District Court Judge.  It is a story that is both unique, inspiring and, most importantly, necessary.  It is also most assuredly not the end of his judicial journey or his contribution to New Zealand.
Born in Gisborne, Heemi Taumaunu’s early childhood was spent in Tolaga Bay on the East Coast, before his family moved to Christchurch where he spent his primary and high school years. His tribal affiliations are Ngāti Pōrou, Ngāti Konohi and Ngāi Tahu.
Heemi enlisted into the RF Cadets as a member of Webb Class in January 1984. He graduated into the RNZ Signals in December 1984 and took his release as a Lance Corporal from the Regular Force in December 1988.
Photo on right – Heemi Taumaunu, with his father, Hone Taumaunu

Heemi explains that his military service instilled in him a work ethic, determination and a sense of professionalism.  It also developed in him a sense of collegiality and the wider life experiences taught him the importance of the values of service, duty, honour and integrity – all precious traits regardless of life choice but invaluable in those who must sit in judgement over those who appear before the courts.

Heemi Taumaunu, RNZ Signals Corp, Dec 1984 to Dec 1988

In my experience, Maori have always found a home in the military where the communal always takes priority over the individual.  Unfortunately, their success in the military is not always reflected in wider society where individual values are not only promoted but valorised.  I believe it is an emphasis that does not reflect traditional Maori values and goes someway in explaining the abysmal social statistics that have bedevilled Maori since colonisation.

Here is an extract from a New Zealand Corrections Department paper ‘Over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system’.  It provides context for Heemi’s father’s concerns and Heemi’s mission to address the disproportionate offending by Maori:

Relative to their numbers in the general population, Māori are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice process. Though forming just 12.5% of the general population aged 15 and over, 42% of all criminal apprehensions involve a person identifying as Māori, as do 50% of all persons in prison. For Māori women, the picture is even more serious: they comprise around 60% of the female prison population.

Early legal career

Heemi left the Army and studied law at Victoria University, where he was awarded the Quentin Baxter Memorial Scholarship and the Ngā Rangatahi Toa Scholarship.  As a barrister, he gained experience as counsel in jury trials, as a Youth Advocate in the Youth Court, and as a lawyer for child and counsel to assist in the Family Court.

Heemi was appointed a District Court Judge in 2004 after practising law mainly in Gisborne.

Heemi and his parents, Maire and Hone Taumaunu, at his swearing-in as a District Court Judge in 2004

Leadership in the District Court

Through various judicial leadership roles in the District Court, Heemi has encouraged a wider appreciation for the value of culturally responsive justice by leading the development of the Rangatahi Courts.  These Courts apply the same law and procedure as any other Youth Court but in a marae setting (or Pasifika community setting for Pasifika Courts). Both incorporate Māori and Pacific languages and protocols. Young people of any ethnicity may be referred to these courts if they admit to their offending, and if the victim consents. The Rangatahi and Pasifika Courts will regularly monitor a plan set by a Family Group Conference.  They have proved  successful.  An analysis in 2014, found those who attended went on to commit 14% fewer offences than those appearing in a regular Youth Court within the year, and they were 11% less likely to commit a new serious offence in that time.  For this initiative Heemi’s leadership was recognised internationally in 2017 with the Veillard-Cybulski Award in recognition of his innovative work with children and families in difficulty.

Heemi was appointed Chief District Court Judge in September 2019, and leads a bench of 172 permanent judges, 39 acting warranted judges, and 18 community magistrates.  It is the largest court in Australasia.  He is the first Māori to be appointed to the role and is a fluent te reo Māori speaker.  Heemi has indicated that he will vacate the appointment after 8 years to make way for fresh ideas.

Chief District Court Judge Taumaunu’s Swearing-In Ceremony held at Whangara Marae, 19 October 2019
Heemi was also appointed a Judge of the Courts Martial in 2012 and in 2018 was appointed Deputy Judge Advocate-General and Deputy Chief Judge of the Courts Martial, a role that will be of considerable benefit to the New Zealand Defence Force.  Heemi has also been appointed as a Patron for the Limited Service Volunteer Scheme.

Heemi with Jock MacCauley and Dale Wetere, Webb Class 1984 graduates

In my view, all presiding judges should have a thorough understanding of military discipline. Unlike civil law, which is focused on protecting the individual from unfettered authority, military law is primarily focused on getting servicemen and women to still function effectively when in fear of their lives.

Vision for the District Court

Heemi was invited to give the annual Norris Ward McKinnon Lecture at Waikato University’s School of Law in November 2020.  In that lecture he unveiled his vision for the District Court, Te Ao Mārama. That vision is for the District Court to properly reflect the modern-day needs of Aotearoa / New Zealand, a diverse and multi-cultural society with two founding cultures bound together in a spirit of partnership under the Treaty of Waitangi . The new model which is expected to be introduced in the Hamilton District Court in the middle of 2021 will incorporate best practices developed in the District Court’s solution-focused specialist courts into its mainstream criminal and family jurisdictions.

As Heemi explains:

The District Court is to be a place where everyone – whether they are defendants, witnesses, complainants, victims, parties, or whānau – can come to seek justice regardless of their means or abilities, regardless of their culture or ethnicity and regardless of who they are or where they are from.”  

“We expect that the Te Ao Mārama model will help improve access to justice, and outcomes for everyone affected by the business of the District Court. The model will be designed to ensure to the maximum extent possible that the best available information is presented to judges and other triers of fact to assist them to make well-informed decisions about the people who appear before them This will help build confidence in the court process and rule of law. And it will ultimately help to make our communities safer.  

“This approach is underpinned by extensive academic and jurisprudential theory. It is not mere trend or fad. It is both evidence-based and legally sound.”

The path ahead is clear, and well lit.  We are confident that this new model will help move our District Court towards Te Ao Mārama, towards a more enlightened world.”

To end the Norris Ward McKinnon address, Heemi quoted one of his grandfather’s favourite whakataukī. It describes the qualities required to successfully realise the vision and implement the Te Ao Mārama model:

He iti te mokoroa, kahikatea teitei ka hinga!
Even the smallest insect, the borer, can fell the tallest tree in the forest, the kahikatea. “

Heemi at his ancestral home at Whangara Marae on the East Coast.

Thanks to Bob Davies for organising and editing Heemi’s tribute and to Heemi for proofing the draft, supplying lots of photos, and agreeing to be the subject of this article.

Military Arts

The lawyer’s eulogy to a client

Not all lawyers are as principled as Heemi. In February 2005, The New Zealand Consumer reported that a lawyer charged a bereaved family for time spent in attending the funeral of a client. The Wellington District Law Society defended the practice. I wrote the following piece of satire in response:

Good afternoon, my name is

Titus Loebloe from the practice
of Loebloe, Shalloe and Sharpe.
I didn’t know Eunice well
but she was my client.

She used to worry a lot
and ring me up all the time
as you do when
you’re getting past it.
Well, the clock was ticking
at both ends of the phone
I tell you.

I would like to use
this opportunity
to acquaint possible
beneficiaries of the will
with some of our
investment services.

 If you are inclined
as Eunice is – sorry, was
to hand over her savings to us
lock, stock and wine-box
I can honestly say
what a pleasure that would be
for both of us.

We have a number of
high-risk, low-return schemes
for you to consider
and I guarantee that
we will make more money
out of this
than you ever dreamed.

Just in case you are wondering
how successful I have been
that’s my car outside – the Volvo
I know it looks a bit like a hearse
but it cost a fortune.

Now, you should also be aware
that it’s not too late for Eunice
to donate her organs
to medical research –
just sign the sheet on the way out
and I will arrange it.

I have a number of large hosp…
I mean, keen buyers lined up
and what they will pay
will more than offset
the cost of re-opening the coffin.

Before I finish I would like to say
its been a pleasure
and will be more so
once you put $250 in the plate –
my fee for providing you each
with this wonderful advice.

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