The Increasing Need for Cultural Experts in New Zealand Courts


  • Mai Chen



New Zealand’s unique demography, with a large indigenous Māori population and a national population which is also increasingly superdiverse, means that New Zealand courts need more assistance from cultural experts if “the common law [is to] serve all in society”, as our Chief Justice recently said in the Supreme Court (Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis v R (Ellis) 2022: para 174). This paper examines two recent Supreme Court decisions: Ellis and Deng v Zheng (2022), which explain the increasing need for cultural experts in New Zealand courts to determine what tikanga (Māori customs and practices) as the first law of New Zealand is and how it applies, as well as to ensure equal access to justice despite cultural and linguistic diversity. The greatest need for cultural experts arises from the majority of the Supreme Court’s acceptance that tikanga was the first law of Aotearoa/New Zealand. There has been ad hoc (albeit growing) incorporation of tikanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Te Tiriti) in various statutes, and no entrenchment in a supreme constitution, but even without statutory incorporation, the courts have interpreted statutes to take account of tikanga values and interests and to be consistent with Te Tiriti to the extent possible. Lawyers and judges need to acquire a base level of tikanga knowledge and cultural competency to be able to identify when a deeper level of tikanga/cultural expertise is needed, and cultural experts need to be called on to provide evidence to assist the Court.

This is important (not only to ensure that justice is done in particular cases) but to maintain broader constitutional  legitimacy. This includes acknowledging significant cultural differences in the application and development of the common law, in relevant cases. Pluralism is an important value which may be relevant to filling the gaps in the common law created by new situations that indigenous and superdiverse cultures and languages give rise to (Chen, forthcoming 2024; see also Palmer & Ling 2023).

Keywords: tikanga; New Zealand; cultural experts; evidence; statutory interpretation; development of the common law.


Download data is not yet available.






Special Section: Tikanga as the First Law of New Zealand: The Need for a System-Wide Cognitive Shift