Judges are increasingly coming from "the same narrow part of society" - wealthy and mostly white homes - says New Zealand's Chief Justice.
In a strongly worded address, Dame Helen Winkelmann warned that the judiciary's "modest" ethnic and social-economic diversity was becoming even less varied, mostly because of financial barriers.
"We cannot accept that our future judiciary will be comprised of only those from the most affluent backgrounds," she said.
It was "critical" that judges understood the lives of people on the margins, she said. That meant not only recruiting students and appointing judges from different backgrounds but requiring all judges to have worked for a broad range of clients rather than solely for corporate interests.
The way judges have "walked through life" shaped how they would and could develop the law, Winkelmann said.
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The top judge in the country made the comments in the annual Dame Silvia Cartwright Address, a transcript of which has just been made available. A spokeswoman declined a request for further comment.
Winkelmann, who gave the speech at the exclusive Northern Club in central Auckland, was raised in a poor household in Blockhouse Bay. At her swearing-in in March, she indicated that improving access to justice would be one of her top priorities.
In a direct challenge to universities and the legal profession, she said the judiciary risked losing legitimacy because it was becoming unrepresentative of the community it served.
That there was any diversity among New Zealand's judges possibly reflected the fact they were at law school in the 1970s and 1980s when there were fewer barriers to education, Winkelmann said.
"But as I look ahead I am concerned that even this modicum of socio-economic diversity will be difficult to maintain."
While 82 out of 237 judges in New Zealand were now women, the judiciary needed to look beyond gender diversity and tackle the under-representation of Māori, she said.
"It is … a troubling reality that an overwhelmingly Pākehā judiciary deals with a predominantly Māori cohort of defendants."
Māori make up 15 per cent of New Zealand's population but 52 per cent of the male prison muster , 57 per cent of the female muster, and 67 per cent of the youth muster - an imbalance which the Coalition Government is trying to redress through a wide-ranging criminal justice review.
Winkelmann cited a Herald investigation by Kirsty Johnston last year which showed that one in 100 entrants to elite university courses like medicine, law and engineering came from decile 1 schools. It also showed students in high-decile schools received four times the number of entry level scholarships as low-decile schools.
"These figures should be of concern to the universities, the law schools and the profession," she said. "As head of the judiciary I am concerned about their implications for judicial appointments."
University of Otago's law school has the highest rate of European students in the country, between 89 and 91 per cent, and takes most of its students from decile 7 to 10 schools. It says that is mostly because its students come directly from high school and are likely to come from outside Dunedin - meaning they face higher costs.
The faculty's dean, Professor Jessica Palmer, said it already had a specific entry category for Māori students but it was now developing a much broader diversity programme. That could entail creating specific entry or scholarship categories for Māori, Pacific or people from lower-income families - an initiative which has already been introduced by its Medical School.
A dissertation by University of Auckland student Ellen Stagwood found that just 3 per cent of people studying second-year law at the university in 2016 were from decile 1 and 2 schools, compared to 55 per cent from Decile 9 and 10 schools. That fell to 1 per cent for honour students.
"This exclusion disproportionately affects Māori and Pasific Island students who make up the majority of decile 1 and 2 secondary students," Stagwood said.
Winkelmann said she wanted more diverse recruitment of students by universities, more training for judges in matters like tikanga Māori, and a requirement that judges have a broad range of experience before being appointed.
She also said it was time for district courts to start adopting the best ideas from pilot courts, like homeless courts or drug courts.
WHO ARE OUR JUDGES?
• 327 identify as European, 48 as Maori, 9 as Pacific, and 6 as Asian* (Census 2018).
• Out of 160 District Court judges, 18 were Māori, 3 Pasifika, and 2 Indian (2019).
• 3 in 100 students in second year law are from decile 1 schools.
• 1 in 100 honours students from decile 1 schools.
(Source: Stats NZ, University of Auckland)
* Some judges identify as more than one ethnicity
An earlier version of this story referred to research which found half of the large law firms in NZ had not hired any graduates from decile 1 schools. The researcher said this was based on incomplete data so it has been removed.