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LLM candidate Mihiata Pirini – Improving access to justice through design 

Wednesday 21 August 2019 3:03pm

Mihiata Pirini imageMihiata Pirini is working with users of New Zealand’s oldest specialist court to contemplate how that court is designed, and to create space for imagining how it could be re-designed to deliver better access to justice.

The Māori Land Court, or Te Kooti Whenua Māori, has evolved considerably since its establishment in 1865 as the Native Land Court. Its original purpose was to convert customary Māori land into titles which could be acquired by the Government or settlers. By 1993 this role had transformed. It now promotes the retention of Māori land in the hands of its owners, whānau and hapū, together with other aims such as facilitating Māori land development, and achieving fairness in decisions involving Māori land.

Yet even with the best of aims, any court is a formidable place to navigate for those with little experience of how it works. Mihiata hopes to help change that through her LLM research project, which will see her working alongside court users to understand their experience of the court and their ideas of how it could be improved.

Mihiata, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Whakatōhea descent, received the LLM Scholarship jointly offered by the University of Otago Legal Issues Centre and Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga (Aotearoa’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence) earlier this year. The scholarship’s kaupapa is to promote Māori postgraduate research about access to justice.

To Mihiata the scholarship presented the ideal opportunity to explore her interest in the experience of Māori in the civil justice system, an interest she developed while working in Crown Law’s Treaty of Waitangi team.

“I respected and knew about the research of the two supervisors Dr. Bridgette Toy-Cronin and Professor Jacinta Ruru, so I was keen to work with them at the University of Otago and delve deeply into a topic of academic interest.”

Mihiata already had a good grounding in longer-term research projects, having begun her career at the Law Commission. Her work there ranged from reviewing the Burial and Cremation Act, to advising on better criminal justice responses to victims of sexual violence, to considering the design of pecuniary penalties.

Now she was ready to explore the uniquely Māori institution of the Māori Land Court. Her wish to improve the experiences of Māori litigants soon led her to an emerging trend in access to justice – legal design.

“Legal design kept surfacing in discussions about improving the legal system, especially names like [Stanford legal design pioneer] Margaret Hagan. Legal design, in essence, presents the idea of law being human-centred, working for the people who need to access it and who are subject to it, rather than lawyers, judges, or other system professionals. This concept interested me and fitted the kaupapa of the scholarship and of the Legal Issues Centre and Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga.”

Mihiata is bringing fresh and critical thinking to her research, even though her first challenge was to get into the headspace of a designer before carving her own contribution in an emerging field and testing for herself the ‘buzz’ about legal design. “I wanted to interrogate whether design thinking can help us better understand and cater to users of the Māori Land Court.”

Mihiata is developing a methodology which integrates kaupapa Māori and indigenous critiques of the legal system with techniques from the field of design and design thinking. Her research approach will use the activity of making to access and understand the experience of the research participants.

“I’ve grappled with the question of how a design-based methodology is different from other research methodologies. Social sciences have observed the human experience for a long time, so simply talking to people about their experience is not new. The difference that my proposed methodology brings is asking people to reveal their experience through making something, and then describing what they have made. The writings of certain authors (such as Elizabeth Sanders) are proving critical to my approach.”

For this purpose, Mihiata is designing a work-book containing exercises that ask Court users to make visual representations related to their court experience – such as a mind map of their journey through the court.

Noting that design thinking is somewhat 'under-theorized' as a practice-based and emerging academic discipline, Mihiata hopes her research will bring something new to the intersection of law and design that will interest anyone wanting to improve the justice system.

As a lawyer with no previous design experience, she says her journey into a completely different field has been “exciting and challenging.” She has also embraced the opportunity of distance learning, as she feels free to work across different campuses, including the University of Otago’s Dunedin campus. “It is great to work with the UOLIC and make connections with the wonderful people there.” She is also keen to learn from the design community. “If any designer wants to get in touch and talk about it I would be very happy because there is so much to learn.”