Te reo's mana 'trampled' in tribunal

Last updated 12:36 12/12/2013

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A Waitangi Tribunal claimant is taking the tribunal to court for stopping her lawyer asking questions in te reo of English-speaking witnesses.

The lawyer for the Te Rohe Potae claimant Liane Green said it was an irony that a judge in what is probably the only judicial forum in New Zealand where te reo is regularly spoken should have made the ruling that lawyer Alex Hope could not use te reo Maori to cross-examine English-speaking witnesses.

Lawyer Karen Feint told a judge in the High Court at Wellington today that the ruling Judge David Ambler made first at a hearing in Te Kuiti a year ago December, and backed up in a written judgment in February, had undermined the mana of te reo and demeaned it as a language, giving it a lower status than English.

Judge Ambler's ruling had been wrong, she said.

Ms Green has asked the High Court to review his decision.

Justice Alan MacKenzie is in the rare position of having none of the three parties in court - Ms Green, the Attorney-General and the Maori Language Commission Te Taua Whiri i te Reo Maori - is supporting Judge Ambler's decision as being legally correct.

Justice MacKenzie reserved his decision.

The Waitangi Tribunal was not represented and is abiding the decision of the court.

Ms Feint said the Maori Language Commission does not want Judge Ambler's decision to create a precedent that would deter the use of te reo in judicial proceedings.

Ms Green had wanted her lawyer, Mr Hope, who is fluent in te reo, to speak Maori whenever possible before the tribunal in presenting the claim which incorporates a claim for loss of language.

Simultaneous translation was available at the tribunal so proceedings were not delayed. Judge Ambler - who is also a fluent te reo speaker - overstated the concern that translating the questions would delay the hearing, Ms Feint said.

The judge appeared to have been taken by surprise by Mr Hope's wish to cross-examine in te reo, Ms Feint said.

She said it had been a very short incident but the day ended poignantly when the kaumatua spoke in English, saying he was afraid to speak in Maori.

The kaumatua said the people were speaking of the mana of the language being trampled and great offense had been caused.

In court today Ms Feint said Judge Ambler had been wrong on three grounds - that the Maori Language Act gave the right to speak Maori in every court and specially included the Waitangi Tribunal, that the judge had failed to take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and the Bill of Rights Act, and that the judge's concern for administrative convenience was irrelevant.

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No-one had to justify wanting to speak te reo and the judge had been wrong to say there was no purpose in cross-examining English-speaking witnesses in a language they did not understand, Ms Feint said.

The hearing is due to end today.

- The Dominion Post

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