Indigenous courts of the future

13 December 2017

Dr Valmaine Toki

New Indigenous courts may be part of the solution to the high number of Māori in prison.

The Government wants to reduce the spiralling prison population. Māori are 15% of the country’s population, but comprise up to 50% of prisoners. For Māori women it is 60%.

Associate Professor Valmaine Toki from the University of Waikato’s Faculty of Law says those statistics have not changed in over 30 years, and show that the criminal justice system is not working for Māori. She has been researching successful alternative models such as Rangatahi and Matariki courts in New Zealand and the Navajo Courts in Arizona to develop a wider model.

Her proposal would see the courts run for Māori, by Māori, ideally on marae -- satisfying tino rangitiratanga, or self-determination -- but remaining within the Westminster system.  “It is not separatist as we’re using the tools we have in the current criminal justice system and being creative with those tools, to achieve a better outcome.”

Dr Toki says intervention with young Māori offenders should also start earlier, at the point when they are picked up by police, not when they are sentenced, as is the current practice. Someone like a Maori warden could be called in, do an assessment straight away to see if there are underlying issues like poverty, addiction or homelessness, and have the young person given appropriate help or training before their first court appearance.  “If you can stop one young person from entering the recidivism cycle, then that’s a good thing; they can go on to become a productive member of society.”

At the other end of the system, Dr Toki says those who go to jail need to be better reintegrated with society so they do not leave jail and return to the same people and places, slipping back into offending. “There needs to be more support after prison, and also more community responsibility for the offender.”

Use of the Māori Land Court could also be extended. Dr Toki believes a recent review of Te Ture Whenua Māori Bill is unlikely to go ahead, and the new Government may have more of an appetite to allow the Land Court to deal with a wider range of civil cases.

Dr Toki has just published Indigenous Courts, Self-Determination and Criminal Justice