Ruling to speak English a 'great offence'

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

Lawyer Karen Feint told Justice Alan MacKenzie in the High Court in Wellington today that the ruling Judge David Ambler made at a hearing in Te Kuiti a year ago 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.

Green has asked the High Court to review his decision.

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

Green had wanted 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, Feint said.

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

She said it had been a 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 offence had been caused.

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.

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, Feint said.

The hearing is due to end today.