History of Te Piringa - Faculty of Law

How did Te Piringa - Faculty of Law become established? The Founding Dean, Emeritus Professor Margaret Wilson, talks about those early years.

Professor Wilson was the founding Dean of Law at Waikato University from 1990 to 1994, then moved into research and teaching roles until 1999, before moving into a series of ministerial roles in Parliament. She returned to Te Piringa as a professor in 2009, then retired in 2019.

Getting started

When reflecting on the impetus for setting up a new law school at Waikato, Professor Wilson says the push came from several directions.

A group of Hamilton lawyers, backed by Waikato-Tainui and the late Sir Robert Mahuta were key players.

“They all believed there should be an opportunity to study law at Waikato University, and they were a very effective lobby group,” recalls Professor Wilson.

“There was also a feeling from inside the judiciary, and [former High Court judge] the late Sir Ivor Richardson, that it was time for a different approach to legal education.”

Lobbying eventually led to the Government to set up a fourth law faculty at the University of Waikato.

“It was a contestable process - Massey lobbied for it along with Waikato - and the Government awarded the capital funding for a new law school to Waikato”.

Challenging times

Professor Wilson was appointed the Dean in 1990, and stayed in the role for several years while the Faculty of Law was established at Waikato.

However, those early years proved challenging. A change in government and a change in policy in funding tertiary institutions saw capital funding removed from the Waikato law school in 1991.

“It was difficult for the university, but our Vice-Chancellor at the time, the late Wilf Malcolm, and a group of local lawyers led by former mayor, the late Ross Jansen, lobbied the Government and we rescued about $1 million,” recalls Professor Wilson.

With strong student interest and operational funding, based on the number of enrolled students, plans for the law school continued.

“We started in 1991 and I don’t think it’s looked back.”

Demand for Waikato law school

With around 1000 applications before the Faculty of Law had even opened, “there was a genuine need at the time”, not only from the Waikato and Bay of Plenty region, but further afield including Tairāwhiti (Gisbourne) and north of Auckland.

“The University provided students with the opportunity to study law that wouldn’t have been available but for setting it up,” says Professor Wilson. “That was the most important thing for me. For many students going to Auckland, Victoria, Otago or Canterbury wasn’t a practical option.

The central University campus, with its on-site accommodation and supportive culture, was appealing to those from smaller towns and Māori and Pacific communities.

The name Te Piringa was gifted to the Faculty by the late Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu. It translates as “the coming together of peoples and cultures”.

Around 150 Waikato law students began in 1991.

“We only had a small number of places, because we had to be careful bringing it on,” recalls Professor Wilson. “We had to get staff, and it takes time to set these things up.”

They were a diverse group, not only from a variety of cultural backgrounds, but a diversity of ages and life stages.

“We had really good applicants,” recalls Professor Wilson, of the first law cohort. “At the time, New Zealand society was going through a lot of redundancy through restructuring, and we attracted a lot of people changing jobs and requalifying, so that initial student body for the first few years was incredibly diverse which was good.”

Taking a new approach

Being a new school gave them the license to be creative and innovative.

“We had enormous freedom … and we had a very different approach. We placed an emphasis on the quality of teaching. We were the first law school to have a computer lab.”

One of Te Piringa’s key pillar’s was a bicultural approach to law education. This, and a programme funding Pacific students, attracted a large number of Māori and Pacific students.

“Since those early days, Māori and Pacific students have been very important to Te Piringa, reflected in the graduates, alumni and research in these communities from Waikato University,” says Professor Wilson.

“We also had an emphasis on supporting not only Māori, but women, and those coming back to retrain. There was a strong feminist perspective that ran through the curriculum, which some may have found threatening, but some of those women now lead law firms of course.”

The first graduation in 1994 “was wonderful”, and after six months of professionals, seeing “the first admissions to the profession was a big moment for the law school,” recalls Professor Wilson.

Read more about Law staff memories here.