Legal Insights

Te Reo Māori me ona Tīkanga and the Law

It is said that language is not only a vehicle for communication, but also carries culture and values. The two are part of each other: Te Reo me ona Tīkanga.

In this week of paying particular attention to Te Reo Māori, we’d like to provide you with an overview of our thoughts on how Te Reo Māori me ona Tīkanga can and is being incorporated into legal practise using the performance of mihi as an example.

In our practise of law we are very conscious of the fundamental role that Te Tiriti O Waitangi plays. We are therefore keen to promote and encourage the working operation of the special partnership that it formed. We believe that there is scope to do so within the formalities offered in procedure of our courts,  and the manner in which we interact with all of our clients. This article explores how we are doing this.

We look at; How we define mihi? Why mihi? When is mihi an appropriate part of legal practice? The history of mihi within the New Zealand judicial system and the benefits of a future where mihi and te ao Māori normalised within legal practice, in court, in law offices and as part of full range of legal situations.

NB: This article is a summary of seminar we gave on 14 March 2018 for Te Ao Maori and the Law: Navigating Pathways.  If you would like a copy of the formal and more comprehensive seminar article please complete the form below and a pdf version of the seminar will be emailed to you.

How we define Mihi?

Definitions can be found in the The Dictionary of the Māori Language by HW Williams or via the online Māori dictionary. For the purposes of this article we define “mihi” in terms of “greeting” and “acknowledging an obligation”, within a formal setting. Axiomatically, it is done, and perhaps only done correctly, and meaningfully, in te reo Māori. It is therefore important to note that the language of the mihi, is also accompanied by its relevant rules: te reo me ona tīkanga.

Why Mihi?

In Māori language tradition formal speech making was an oratory art form. It was a vital vehicle of the Rule of Law, recounting and affirming history and tradition. It regulated procedure; it provided structure and order and intelligibility to resolve issues.   It is encapsulated in the well known whakatauākī- “Ko te kai a te Rangatira, he korero, he korero, he kōrero.” (What is the food of the leader? It is knowledge. It is communication.)

As the main form of greeting and acknowledgment within a formal speech situation mihi can acknowledge the celestial, those who have passed on, guests, hosts or dignitaries. It is the way to pay due respect, show dignity, courtesy and honour. It helps relate the speaker to the person the oratory is being directed at, acknowledging that person’s status vis a vis the speaker, and the land on which it is performed.

By performing mihi the speaker elevates the mana of the person to whom it is directed, and thus fortifies the human relationship, as well as the relationship between the relevant persons and the relevant land. It is done to “hei whakakotahi” or brings people and land and celestial things together[1]. If it were not done at all, for instance, it would appear that the speaker is more concerned to violate a key principle of Tīkanga, which is humility[2]. It may also mean that the relationship does not flourish.

In our view, the mihi at tīkanga therefore has both procedural and substantive elements to its nature.

So when should you mihi as part of your practice of the law?

  1. In court, with reference to the Judge, and to the other party;
  2. In your conduct of a file, when meeting Māori clients for the first time; and
  3. In formal occasions, when hosting a group of visitors, or commemorating a special event.

As mentioned, the purpose of your mihi is to greet the person (or persons) to whom it is directed, and acknowledge their mana, as well as the land and other relevant things. This paves the way for the relationship to start and continue on the right footing.

The history of mihi in New Zealand Courts

One obvious question to consider is whether there is an inherent right to mihi to the Court?[3]

Technically, the right to mihi to the Court is at the discretion of the Judge who controls the proceedings to ensure the proper administration of justice. In times gone by a lawyer wishing to simply mihi to the court nonetheless needed to make an application in writing well before the hearing. Now, thankfully, more Judges are accepting of mihi being undertaken as part of the practice of the court and formal applications are not being insisted upon.

The Law Commission in its report of 2017 entitled “Tīkanga, Diversity and Contempt” noted that; “…Tīkanga and the use of te reo Māori has not always been welcomed.”[4] The Commission cited two cases. Firstly, Mair v District Court at Wanganui, where the undertaking of a karakia was done, in spite of the Judges direction not to, resulted in a finding of contempt by the Judge and the imposition of a prison sentence[5]. The undertaking was said to challenge the authority of the court. This was upheld on appeal by the High Court. Secondly in the Environment Court. In Tiakina Te Taiao Limited v Tasman District Council an informal request to perform a karakia and mihi was declined in the first instance by the presiding Judge, but later allowed[6].

The Civil Procedure that regulates the machinery and governs the administration of civil justice does not refer to the practice of mihi. The statutes covering the rules for the District Court, Senior Courts and High court lack practice notes or direction regarding mihi.   Instead the opportunity or potential to mihi to the Court appears to come under the inherent jurisdiction of the court or the practice of the court over a period of time.

Positively, the Judges of the District Courts have put in place initiatives that contrast with such examples.   This includes the opening and closing of the courts in te reo, a revised tīkanga education programme, use of pōwhiri at the swearing in ceremonies of all new judges, and the establishment of the Kaupapa Māori Advisory Council.

Judges can be confident in embracing the practice of mihi in their courts. It is not long-winded, and fundamentally upholds the dignity of the procedure of the court. It is part of the land on which the court sits and therefore respects the connection of the land to the people who are gathering upon it. It is therefore a contributor to the protection of civil procedural law, ensuring that there is orderly, regular and public functioning of the legal machinery and the operation of due process of the law. It works to uphold the rule of law- not to detract from it.

When to mihi

When conducting your file.

Māori clients are rightly demanding that their counsel act in a culturally appropriate way. Being able to mihi to a client is one important way of acting appropriately in the service of Māori. Usually a mihi would be performed when the client is being met for the first time, and in an on-going fashion at the times when the larger group, a hapu, whānau or iwi, is presented to from time to time.

At formal occasions.

As mentioned, mihi is a key part of the format of whaikōrero, or formal speech making. When you are asked to speak to a group, whether they are visitors to your offices, or at a function off site, performing a mihi is a good way of immediately connecting you to your audience, the land and the surrounding things. It sets the relationship onto a correct footing.

We encourage you to perform mihi when it is appropriate. The more you do so, the more normal this will become.

Examples of mihi

To assist, there are two examples below, which have been provided by the writer’s Ngāti Whākaue relation, Mr Scotty Morrison, so they must be good!

The first is an example for use in court. The second is for use outside of court, and in a more generic sense.

Mihi to the Court

Ki te Kaiwhakawā(Court):

Te Whare Kooti e tū nei, te papa tapu e hora nei, nga iwi e tau nei, tēnā koutou katoa.

E tangi ana ki nga hunga kua ngaro

E te Kaiwhakawā, e mihi ana ki a koe, te urutapu nui o tēnei kooti, tēnā koe, otirā, tēnā tātou katoa.

Mihi for other occassions

Ki te marea (generic):

Te rangi e tū nei, te papa e takoto nei, tātou e hui nei, tēnā tātou katoa

E tangi ana ki nga hunga kua ngaro

Tātou ngā waihotanga, kia ora anō tātou


John Kahukiwa, Managing Partner, Corban Revell
John Kahukiwa, Managing Partner

Nā John Kahukiwa, Managing Partner (Ngāti Whākaue)


Maureen Malcom, LLB, BA (Māori)
Maureen Malcolm, Solicitor

Maureen Malcolm, Solicitor (Ngāti Tarawhai),

If you would like a copy of the formal seminar this article overviews please email us with your details and we wills you out  print friendly pdf version of the full article.


[1] Refer for instance He kōrero kai a te Rangatira na Te Poroa Malcolm, year unknown, paper for Te Arawa.

[2] See for instance Te Ao Hurihuri – the World moves on , aspects of Māoritanga King M ed, (1975) Hicks, Smith & Sons Ltd, John Rangihau Being Māori pp221-233.

[3] I mean here the civil courts.

[4] Chapter 3 Disruptive behavior in the courtroom.

[5] [1996] 1 NZLR 556.

[6] 10 April 2008 Decision No C 40/2008.