Establishing a law school at the University of Waikato

A long but worthy road: establishing a law school at the University of Waikato

New Zealand needs another law school

The idea of establishing a law school in the Waikato region had been thrown around as early as the 1960s when the University of Waikato was still in its infancy, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that it was taken seriously and a plan to establish one started to take shape.

Outside the university, Aotearoa’s legal landscape was bracing for serious change, influenced by several factors. The demand for legal services was beginning to exceed supply, and the existing universities’ law schools were limiting incoming student numbers, meaning a serious shortage of law professionals was looming. There was also a growing sense that the legal profession needed to incorporate Aotearoa’s bicultural landscape more effectively, underpinned by the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Kevin Broughan, Emeritus Professor in Mathematics, was on the University’s council and academic board at the time, and vividly recalls the conversations surrounding the establishment of a law school at Waikato. He says there was a lot of support from all corners, including the legal profession, other universities, and especially Waikato’s Vice-Chancellor at the time, Professor Wilf Malcolm.

“Wilf was an exceptional people person; great at forging relationships and garnering support for the university, and the law school - including meeting with the senior law faculty at Auckland University and convincing them a law school at Waikato was a good idea and wouldn’t be to their detriment, which was no small undertaking.

“And staff at Waikato were supportive too. Many thought a law school – a rigorous academic discipline – would not only benefit the university, but society as a whole.”

With the Council’s OK, a sub-committee was set up to produce a ‘state of the nation’ report ahead of submitting a proposal for funding to the then-Universities Grants Committee, or UGC (a group whose role is now part of Universities New Zealand). The resulting report, Te Mātāhauariki, made a compelling case outlining the pressing factors that would necessitate another law school. These included the severe incoming shortage of law graduates, the changing face of the legal profession and heightened need for regional and in-house legal expertise, and, crucially, the need to teach law in a bicultural context.

And so, endorsed by Council and the Academic Board, Te Mātāhauariki was forwarded to the UGC and sent to the Council of Legal Education to comment. More consultation and consideration followed, including a review of a separate case for a law school at Massey University, and finally on 20 October 1990 then-Deputy Prime Minister Helen Clark announced Cabinet’s approval and a $10 million setting up grant.

Starting from scratch

A Foundation Dean was quickly appointed – Margaret Wilson, a former law academic from Auckland University, Labour party president, and law commissioner. With students due to start in less than six months from the school receiving the go-ahead from Government, Professor Wilson faced a massive task: write course and degree outlines, stock a law library, appoint staff, and a building for the law school needed to be built.

Then, a change in government and tertiary funding policy saw the original capital funding removed from the law school before the first students could arrive. By then, the university had put up a (temporary) building, purchased books and advertised for students. It also left newly-hired staff in an uncertain position – many had left their previous positions overseas to come to New Zealand, and subsequently faced an anxious wait over Christmas.

The University and a group of local lawyers lobbied the Government to restore the funding, but the University, led by Wilf Malcolm, decided to stand by its commitment and go ahead anyway. The new law school attracted more than 1000 student applications for the 350 places available in the first- and second-year papers. Teaching began in March 1991.

On 3 May 1991, the official opening of the new law school took place. Prior to that event, at a blessing and launching ceremony in February, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the late Māori Queen, gifted the name Te Piringa to the school and its building. The name translates as “the coming together of peoples and cultures,” though it wouldn’t become a formal part of its name until the school was renamed Te Piringa – Faculty of Law some years later.

“Figuring it out as we went along”

Early staff recall the excitement of joining a brand-new law school and re-writing the book on legal education in Aotearoa.

Barry Barton, law professor, was one of the law school’s foundation staff in 1991, returning to New Zealand from Canada where he completed postgraduate studies and worked in a legal research institute. He recalls Professor Wilson interviewing him by phone late at night at his home in Calgary, and he was excited at the prospect of being part of a law school with a fresh approach.

“There was a sense of building something new, an adventure, and the opportunity for people to pool ideas and create a new way forward,” says Professor Barton, who continues to lecture and research at Waikato and is a respected expert in energy and natural resources law.

Stephanie Milroy, now a Māori Land Court Judge and presiding officer of the Waitangi Tribunal, was also a foundation staff member and says the commitment to providing a bicultural and law in context programme for students was ground-breaking at the time.

“In the first year of teaching in 1991 we held an induction programme for all law students to introduce them to what a bicultural and law in context programme would look like, and we were well supported by staff from other disciplines at the university too.”

Professor Barton remembers there was a lot of enthusiasm among staff and students, and a fair amount of “figuring it out as we went along.”

“The workload was huge. We were teaching courses for the first time, in new ways, in a time of dramatic developments in law and public affairs. All the procedures for managing our teaching and marking to be worked out from scratch – but it was enjoyable at the same time, what we were a part of was exciting.”

And some of those early law students would go on to become staff members themselves. Dr Robert Joseph and Associate Professor Wayne Rumbles completed their masters together in 1997, and have been on staff ever since. Both say it is the staff and student collegiality and the Faculty’s commitment to its three pillars (professionalism, biculturalism, law in context) that set it apart.

Successful graduates, leading research, and a new building…finally

Long-serving lecturer Professor Al Gillespie says the true mark of the Te Piringa’s success is in its graduates.

“We have seen some fantastic people come through our doors, and many of them still share a great relationship with us. People like Paul Hunt, former student and lecturer and current chief human rights commissioner, former deans Margaret Wilson and Margaret Bedggood, and of course many members of the judiciary, current and former MPs and many other leading legal minds – true measures of our success.”

Research now forms an integral part of Te Piringa’s offerings, with expertise in many legal fields, from business and commercial law through to environmental, international, gender, health, human rights, indigenous rights and more. Te Piringa was also the first law faculty in New Zealand to pioneer teaching and research in the areas of cyber law and new technologies, and as part of the country’s first Masters in Cyber Security.

In 2016, Te Piringa said goodbye to its “temporary” building of more than 25 years and moved into its new home: a $20 million-plus building comprising lecture rooms, staff and student spaces, and a dedicated moot court. The law library is extensive and world-class, a testament to its foundation librarian the late Anna Kingsbury, who oversaw its curation in the early 1990s and later joined the Faculty as a lecturer.

“Te Piringa is now a modern, well-regarded law school,” says Professor Gillespie. “But we haven’t lost our ‘radical’ roots and that sense of doing it differently, and I hope we never do.”

Photo: Staff and students of Te Piringa Faculty of Law stand in the courtyard of the law buildings in approximately 1992.