Sense of justice

posted: 12:00 pm - 2nd November 2018
Tiana Epati 1 002

The incoming President of the New Zealand Law Society Tiana Epati (pictured) says her sense of justice and fairness was instilled at a young age.

In October, Tiana became the first Pacific woman to be elected for the role which starts in April, following years of dedication, hard work and a passion for the law.

Tiana has always looked up to her father A'e'au Semi Epati and viewed him as a beacon of hope.

“My father was a lawyer and he believed in helping people who were in need,” Tiana says.

“As a Samoan man who did not learn to speak English until he was teenager, to go on and win a scholarship to attend Otago University and eventually become the first Pacific person ever to be made a District Court Judge – he was a constant beacon of hope for me.”

Judge Epati would often say to Tiana: “If you start something, finish it. But if you find yourself in the middle of something you didn’t start, and someone needs your help, don’t ever turn your back on them.”

For Tiana, this sums up the work ethic and compassion required of a good Lawyer.

In 2002, Judge Epati was made New Zealand's first ever Judge of Pacific descent, in what was a major milestone for the Pacific community, and just shy of two decades later, Tiana is also making history within the same profession.

While her father isSamoan from Falealupo, Savaii and Salemoa, Upolu, Tiana’s mother is from Adelaide in South Australia.  

Tiana grew up in Samoa until she was 10 years old, and she remembers her childhood fondly.

“We lived in Tiapapata but I often spent days with my aunties in the village of Salemoa.

“When my parents separated the family moved to Auckland in stages - I then lived between their respective houses in Mangere, Onehunga and Grey Lynn in Auckland.  I have only one sibling, my brother, Mana.”   

After studying at the University of Auckland, Tiana wasadmitted as a Barrister and Solicitor in September 2000 after graduating from Auckland University with a Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy and History) and Bachelor of Laws.

The current Vice-President, Central North Island of the Law Society and a partner with Gisborne law firm Rishworth Wall & Mathieson, says her experience as a Lawyer is vast and diverse.

“I started in a large law firm in Auckland, worked in medium sized firms in Wellington, worked in Government for years and I am now a partner in a small provincial law firm.

“I have done work for both the Crown and defence; as well as iwi, private organisations, and clients.”

It is the rare opportunity to change the course of a person’s life for the better which fuels her passion to work in the legal arena, Tiana adds.

“It doesn’t happen often… but it is that ‘sliding doors’ moment where you can see being an excellent Lawyer has made all the difference.  

“Years ago I acted for a gang member who had been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. 

“While I was preparing for the appeal we found out his wife had breast cancer, his forestry business was suffering and their family were struggling to cope. 

“I can remember winning in the Court of Appeal and calling him to say his conviction had been quashed because of a miscarriage of justice – he was so shocked he asked me to call back in a couple of days.

“I saw him and his wife earlier this year and she said having him come home not only saved her life but gave them hope in the criminal justice system.”

While there are many “wins” of successes in her profession, overcoming challenges Tiana has faced due to being not only female but Pacific, has been a huge victory.

“The biggest challenge has been not letting the fact I am a bit different get in the way of my own determination and self-belief,” she says.

“We all have those moments of self-doubt, and fear of failure - you can get caught up telling yourself a story about not being good enough, or smart enough, or belonging.

“I have let go of that now, because it doesn’t serve me to limit what I am capable of doing, and the future is unwritten.”

She adds her personal definition of success is letting go of that old story, and telling herself a new one.

“It begins with ‘I can’ and I think, particularly in these changing times, being a Pacific woman is a strength.”

While it is a milestone to have a Pacific woman fill the President’s role at the New Zealand Law Society (Tiana’s election means she will be only the fourth female President in its history), she says the significance of her appointment is herwide range of experience and background is more than just gender and ethnicity. 

“It is the full range of diversity of experience and background which is important.”

As President of the New Zealand Law Society, Tiana has clear goals in mind she wants to achieve, including the delivery of asafe, effective, and fair regulatory and complaints process which deals with allegations of unacceptable behaviour within the profession.

“Longer term, I want to drive culture change by leading the way for diversity, and inclusion within the profession. 

“I also want to advocate for material improvements in access to justice outcomes for both members of the public and the Lawyers who undertake legal aid work in all areas of practise.” 

For those wanting to study Law, Tiana says to really ask yourself first why you want tobe a Lawyer. 

“This profession is not for everybody.  

“It is hard work and can be very challenging at times, and if it is just to make money or obtain status, it may not be the best fit for you.

“If, after all the thought and research into the profession, you still want to do it, go for it.”

The profession as a whole wants to improve the diversity and inclusion of its membership as New Zealand is a multi-cultural society with bi-cultural foundations, Tiana says.

“Pacific people, like many other ethnicities and people with a variety of different backgrounds, have much to offer the profession. “

Tiana will take over from the current President, Kathryn Beck, who completes her three year terms in April, 2019.