Supreme Court Justice of Samoa, Leilani Tuala-Warren, considers her work in protecting constitutional law during the recent Samoan political crisis a highlight.
While being a judge was not part of her career plan, Leilani says the role has a welcome advantage in that it has drawn her closer to the community. Leilani graduated with a Bachelor and Master of Laws at the University of Waikato after completing a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney, Australia, choosing to study law to reinforce the link she saw it had with economics.
Following her studies, Leilani worked as a State Solicitor in the office of the Attorney General before returning to New Zealand in 2000. She was a Teaching Fellow in Commercial Law in the Waikato Management School and then became a law lecturer at Te Piringa – Faculty of Law in the early 2000s, juggling the role while raising two young children.
In 2005 she returned home to Samoa, and the welcome support of family, to work for with her brother in their law firm, Tuala & Tuala. Now, Leilani and her husband, fellow law alumnus and Māori Land Court judge Aidan Warren, manage their work and family life with four children between their respective roles in Samoa and New Zealand.
The move home to Samoa triggered an unexpected path for Leilani. In 2008, she was appointed the first Executive Director of the Samoa Law Reform Commission. Just five years later, Chief Justice Patu Tiavaasue Falefatu Maka Sapolu invited her to become a judge of the District Court, and in doing so she became the second woman in Samoa appointed to the bench. As a newly appointed judge, Leilani was asked to establish the Family Court and the Family Violence Court, the only court of its kind in the Pacific outside of New Zealand.
“When I was asked to be a judge, I thought ‘this is not a part of my plan’. But the chief justice said to me, 'the path that you have set for yourself is not necessarily the path that God has chosen for you’,” says Leilani. “I realised there was a huge need in the country for better processes for family violence and after lots of soul-searching and with the support of my husband, I said that I would accept.”
The Family Violence Court is a therapeutic court where the process is holistic and focuses on the whole family, including offenders and victims.
“I found this work really rewarding, and enjoy working with the families - they want to heal together, and it’s a process that works well in this country.”
In 2016 Leilani left the Family Violence Court to become a Justice of the Supreme Court of Samoa where she deals with serious offences and constitutional cases.
“Because it is not a therapeutic court and the seriousness of the offences we deal with, the role gets quite heavy.”
But she enjoys the camaraderie in the role. “There are only ten judges, so there is a lot of sharing and discussion about the law. I love that part of the role and we make a difference in people’s lives.”
Earlier this year, Leilani and her fellow Supreme Court judges were faced with a constitutional crisis during the Samoa election when two rival leaders were in a deadlock over who was the rightful prime minister, with a resolution found through the Supreme Court and through scrutiny of the constitution. Leilani and her colleagues were in the position of strengthening the rule of law, which she found to be a meaningful moment in her career.
“We spent a lot of time reading and writing. It lifted me and I thought, ‘this is why I am here’.”
The experience proved that the rule of law in Samoa is strong and that the judiciary is a protector of the Constitution, and Leilani feels that the crisis helped the community gain a better understanding of the law.
“It’s been educational for our people because everyone had an interest in who would govern the country.”
Her advice to the next generation of lawyers is, “Ask yourself, ‘what can I do to help our people?’ That’s where the passion will come from, and from there you will do well.”
Ultimately Leilani plans to move to New Zealand to be with her husband and children in the very near future.