A fair go in justice?

justice 303 A fair go in justice?

© Department of Corrections

Research suggests two forms of structural discrimination exist within New Zealand’s justice system. The first is related to the nature of the system itself, which is based on values that are often at odds with those of Māori and Pacific people. The second relates to biased practices within the system, which lead to higher rates of Māori and Pacific imprisonment.


The values New Zealand’s justice system is based on come from the British model in which perpetrators take individual responsibility for their crime. This is very different from Māori and Pacific justice frameworks, which count on greater whānau and community responsibility and involvement.

In tikanga Maori, victims and offenders, while individuals, are also part of a collective group. The whanau, hapu and iwi of the victim and offender are all affected by a crime, so the community as a whole is involved in the justice process. Pacific ideas of justice are also relationship-based and start from a state of well being.  Wellbeing exists when a person’s relationship with their environment, their God and other people are in a state of balance. Violation against other people, particularly family members, disturbs these sacred relationships. Most Pacific communities will try to re-establish the disrupted relationships and restore balance.

Generally, these values have not been included in New Zealand’s justice processes. However, some of our case studies show that there have been efforts to incorporate Māori and Pacific principles of conflict resolution into the justice system. Some would argue that ‘grafting Māori processes’ onto the existing system is not enough. In order for there to be significant change, there needs to be a shift in values so more priority is given to programmes that are locally designed, developed and delivered, such as programmes by Māori for Māori.

Biased practices

A 2007 report showed that Māori were more likely to have police contact; be charged; lack legal representation; not be granted bail; plead guilty; be convicted; be sentenced to non-monetary penalties; and be denied release to Home Detention. Pacific people are also disproportionately represented, though not to the same extent. There is a lack of good quality research that interprets these statistics and looks into the reasons behind them for Māori, and even less for Pacific peoples.

Social attitudes contribute towards Police being more likely to apprehend and arrest non-Europeans (racial profiling). Studies also show that Māori and police hold negative attitudes towards one another. This may make detainees less likely to co-operate with Police which then makes it more likely they will be charged. The Operation 8 raids at Ruatoki show a recent example of police practice which has done serious damage to relationships with community and Māori that will take time and effort to heal.

This also holds true with Pacific peoples. The 1970s “dawn raids” for example, were humiliating and insulting for Pacific peoples. They were out of proportion to the actual incidence of offending, and have likely contributed to a legacy of mistrust between police and Pacific communities.

Another important factor is the social and economic inequalities that tend to increase the risk of involvement with crime. Although this cannot be quantified, there is strong evidence that the two are related. The Department of Corrections states that early intervention in health, social support and education is the most effective way to combat the high rate of Māori imprisonment.

Efforts to address structural discrimination

There have been a number of efforts that have had some success at addressing structural discrimination such as the Rangitahi and Pasifika youth courts and Māori Focus Units. Studies have shown that features of such efforts include:

  1. including ethnic minority and/or indigenous peoples as a central role in programme design, implementation and governance
  2. adopting a holistic approach, looking beyond the remit of the criminal justice system to address structural inequalities more broadly
  3. incorporating appropriate cultural components.

These developments need to take place at both a process and policy level, and include a broader focus on the structural inequalities that contribute to involvement with the criminal justice system.


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