“in my university days here in wellington, we were the generation on the streets calling for the māori language to be recognised, calling for mana motuhake and rangatiratanga [separate and independent authority], calling for the mana of the treaty to be recognised in the law. aotearoa was growing up at the same time we were,” says sir joe.

sir joe is from manaia in the coromandel, but grew up in hastings. he attended lindisfarne college there on a scholarship, becoming the first person in his whānau to pass school certificate. he enrolled in a bachelor of arts, planning to major in māori studies, before meeting a group of māori law students, including future politician shane jones. the following year, he switched to a double degree programme in māori and law.

“once i started law school and realised the power of law, there was no looking back,” says sir joe. “the knitting together of the law, reo, and tikanga gave me my life’s path.”

the living pā ambassadors

sir joe is an inspiration for young māori law students. at the age of 38, he became the youngest person to be appointed chief judge of the māori land court. in 2004, he was appointed chairperson of the waitangi tribunal. after moving to the high court in 2008 and the court of appeal in 2017, he became the first māori to be appointed to the supreme court in 2019. he became a knight companion of the new zealand order of merit in the 2020 new year honours.

giving the 2019 robin cooke lecture at the university, sir joe spoke about the role of colonial dispossession in contemporary indigenous offending, highlighting the inequities in the current justice system for māori offenders, and encouraging the use in criminal justice of bridges between the state systems and te ao māori of the iwi, hapū, and whānau of offenders.

the living pā is another type of bridge, for the transfer “not of knowledge, but of wisdom”.

“the idea you would have a sustainable multidisciplinary centre for learning and teaching—a centre that walks its own talk—inevitably means a radical rethink of what and how you teach and what and how you learn,” says sir joe.

“in my university days here in wellington, we were the generation on the streets calling for the māori language to be recognised, calling for mana motuhake and rangatiratanga [separate and independent authority], calling for the mana of the treaty to be recognised in the law. aotearoa was growing up at the same time we were.”
justice sir joe williams

“it seems to me that the living pā is a metaphor for the idea that the lecture theatres for victoria university of wellington are actually in nature, the islands and oceans of aotearoa—te ika a māui, te waipounamu, wharekauri, rakiura, me te moana-nui-a-kiwa—and in our communities. those are our true lecture theatres.

“if you can activate that idea, you fundamentally change the way we humans think about education. if this institution succeeds in doing that, the world is going to follow, because it’s a radical and good idea. exactly right for our times.”

supporting the

living pā

help us transform our marae precinct into a multipurpose teaching, learning, engagement, and research complex that targets the highest level of sustainability.

other alumni articles