On Thursday 14 March, in a packed-out Supreme Court, Te Hunga Rōia Māori celebrated the swearing in of the new Chief Justice, Dame Helen Winkelmann.

Justice Winkelmann’s career has been a testament to her hard-work and passion for the law. At graduation from Auckland University, she received the prize for most promising law graduate. She went on to become a partner at Nicholas Gribbin (now DLA Piper) at age 25, after working only the minimum 3 years; she was their first female partner. After a distinguished career in commercial law and medical disputes litigation, Justice Winkelmann was appointed to the High Court bench in 2004. It was clear from the words of those present at her swearing-in that there were high expectations for her in this new phase of her career. In 2010, Justice Winkelmann’s leadership was recognised when she was made president of the High Court where she served until her 2015 promotion to the Court of Appeal.

New Zealand’s Supreme Court was also established in 2004, however, Justice Winkelmann is the first Chief Justice to take her oath within its walls. In her address to the Court, her honour spoke to the role of the Supreme Court in the New Zealand and the changing legal landscape. She also spoke of measuring her promises at the swearing-in of the next Chief Justice, when that may occur. Certainly, Justice Winkelmann has already instigated great change simply by the running of her ceremony.

In a first for our country’s highest court, Thursday’s events incorporated elements of pōwhiri, haka, waiata and the kawa of the mana whenua, Te Atiawa. Stalwart of our hunga, Justice Joe Williams was instrumental in bringing things together. Under the guidance of Te Rau Kupenga and Ngapera Hoerara, Wellington-based Māori lawyers were able to come together to lend their support to the haka pōwhiri and provide their voices for the waiata.

On Justice Winkelmann’s entry to the courtroom, the renowned Ngāti Porou haka Te Urunga Tu rang out in welcome. It marked a tangible change, according to those present, in how the New Zealand courts will approach justice. For Te Hunga Rōia Māori to be a part of the ceremony and to bring māoritanga into that auspicious occasion felt momentous.

A large amount of appreciation must be shown to those who took the time, not only to attend the ceremony but to learn the haka and the waiata. Many dedicated their personal time before and after their working day to mastering the actions, memorising the kupu and nailing those high notes.