The Honourable Justice Joe Williams

Class of 1987-1988

In 2019, the Honourable Justice Joe Williams (LLM Hons, 1988) made history as New Zealand’s first Māori Supreme Court judge. An accomplished expert in Indigenous law, he has served in various judicial roles: first, on New Zealand’s specialized Indigenous courts (the Māori Land Court and Waitangi Tribunal), then the High Court, and Court of Appeal. He is of Ngati Pūkenga, Waitaha and Tapuika nation.

Law school was not an obvious choice to him earlier in life. “There are no lawyers in my family, we’re a family of labourers, I was the first person in my whanau [extended family] to graduate from High School” he said. It was in university, through watching Māori law student friends debate class statutory interpretation problems that he considered the legal path. Since then, he’s never looked back. “I fell in love with law as a way of thinking about the world.”

Before graduating from Victoria University of Wellington with a bachelor’s degree in law, Justice Williams assisted with the claim to the Waitangi Tribunal (New Zealand’s truth and reconciliation tribunal) to make te reo Māori (the Māori language) an official language of New Zealand. It further confirmed that his future would be in law, as he saw its power to achieve social justice ends.

So why a Masters? And why UBC Law?

“At that stage as an undergraduate I was really interested in Indigenous rights issues, so I was looking around the world for places where I could do postgraduate work in that particular area, which was my passion […] I wanted to pursue a particular path in a school that had the expertise.”

A chance meeting in New Zealand with former UBC professor Douglas Sanders put UBC Law (as it then was) on Justice William’s radar. Impressed by the professor’s deep knowledge of comparative Indigenous rights, he decided to follow him to UBC to learn. The mild weather was a plus.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.

To Justice Williams, Canada was half a decade ahead of New Zealand in terms of how the law addressed Aboriginal title. Studying in Canada transported him to a “near-future scenario” in terms of where New Zealand law could be in the right circumstances and with the right litigation strategy.

His time at UBC Law, meeting many Indigenous lawyers, academics, and law students, also inspired the trajectory of his career. “The most important [lesson I learned at UBC] was that you could actually practice law on your own account in the field of Indigenous rights. In New Zealand back then, the category of law we now call Indigenous rights was just being rediscovered. So, if you wanted to make an impact on the circumstances of Māori people through law, you had to either work for the legal section of the Māori Affairs Department or be a legal academic. The tribes had no money and litigation lawyers had no experience of the kind of work private specialist firms in British Columbia were doing. It was all green-fields back then.”

A particular source of inspiration will be familiar to us: Justice Williams attended strategic meetings for Delgamuuk’w during its trial stage. Describing himself as a “fly on the wall” in those meetings, Justice Williams observed how Professors Sanders and Michael Jackson, and counsel Louise Mandell, QC and Peter Grant, worked out how the case would be constructed. “That experience gave me inspiration to try to replicate that model when I returned to New Zealand. So, I decided to become a litigator when I returned to New Zealand.”

Justice Williams joined a national firm, Kensington Swan, and established the first ever practice group specializing in Māori issues in New Zealand. He then left to form his own firm, Walters Williams & Co, which began as a boutique firm focused on Indigenous law, environmental law, and public law (“a lot like Mandell Pinder in Vancouver”). It eventually became a national firm with offices in Auckland and Wellington. He said that seeing the firm, something he built from the ground up, grow to what it became is one of the most satisfying achievements of his professional life.

Justice Williams was appointed Chief Judge of the specialist Maori Land Court in 1999 at the age of 38. From there, his journey to the highest court in New Zealand took 20 years. Justice Williams says he took a big leap of faith when he transitioned from the specialist Maori jurisdictions into the mainstream courts. It was not without difficulty particularly given the disproportionate involvement of Maori with the criminal courts, but he said, “I consider that it was necessary to have someone in that role [of a senior court judge] who understood the Māori world and community. I stuck to it despite its difficulties, and I don’t regret it.”

The challenges continue as the judiciary in New Zealand, as in all common law countries, grapples with recreating in itself the diversity of the community it serves. Justice Williams sees himself as “one of the challengers within the system.” There is still a long way to go, but he remains optimistic. “Canada, like New Zealand, is coming to the point where there will be Indigenous and other minority judges up and down the system. This increased diversity will change the way the law operates. That will be to the benefit of all.”

Another challenge for the courts is reconciliation in the law, a multigenerational process taking place in both New Zealand and Canada. Justice Williams recognizes the importance and value of his role in the process. “I do see one of my roles in the Supreme Court as being the person in the court who has grounding in tikanga (Māori custom) and who knows how tikanga systems work. I take that role very seriously.”

All in all, he loves what he does. “The great honour of this job is that, along with my colleagues, I must approach the case in front of me from a systemic point of view. While seeking to do justice in the individual case, it is necessary to keep in mind what the Court says do may shape law in the country in a systemic way. It’s hard to think of a legal job more satisfying yet more scary than the job I have.”

When asked about what he would’ve done if he didn’t pursue law, he talked about his love for old cars and music. In fact, the latter was a genuine career possibility: Justice Williams was lead singer of a reggae and RnB band in the 80s, Aotearoa, with a hit song that made it to the charts. “The band’s ethos was to make music about Māori things, it was a bit radical back then. It did rather well, but I left the band to go to UBC.”

He has no regrets on that front. “UBC Law changed my life for the better. It set my career path. It was at UBC that I developed both a sense of who I wanted to be as a lawyer and the confidence to pursue that goal. The rest I put down to a great deal of luck.”