Law alumnus celebrates historic achievement

A University of Auckland alumnus recently made history after becoming the first Tongan to be appointed to the Tongan Supreme Court in more than 100 years.

Honourable Justice Laki Niu said the achievement was incredibly significant for him, his family and his community.

“I have simply been overwhelmed and I am still trying to come to grips with the enormity of this historical occurrence... It felt like it was never going to happen in our lifetimes, that a Tongan would be appointed to the Supreme Court.”

Niu began his four-year term in July and said his journey began with his grandfather, who believed education was vital to a successful future.

“My grandfather Taniela Niu had sacrificed by saving one shilling of his daily labourer’s wage of one shilling and sixpence, and made copra, to save 100 pounds, so that by 1918 he could send my father Tevita Maile Niu to study in the Mormon college in Hastings, New Zealand.”

After Niu’s father graduated, he went back to Tonga and was a lawyer and businessman, who was able to fund his children’s education.

Niu said that if it was not for his high calibre of education, he would not have had such a fulfilling career.

“I would not be where I am today if it had not been for my time at University of Auckland. It was renowned for its high standard and the government of Tonga wanted its scholars to be graduates of that University. The University of Auckland was, and still is, world renowned for its high standard of study.”

Niu believed having a local on the bench after more than a century was great progress for the country. He said the United Kingdom provided British judges to sit on the bench from 1900 to 1997. Since then, judges from New Zealand and Australia have been sworn in for the role. There are currently two New Zealand judges in the Tongan Supreme Court, who sit alongside Niu.

“You can therefore appreciate the right of all Tongans to be elated upon the occurrence of this historical event,” he said.

Tongan Justice Minister Honorary Vuna Fa’otusia hopes to have an all-Tongan Supreme Court bench by 2020. Niu said if that happened, it would be to the betterment of the country.

“I believe that Tonga would truly be independent, and I believe that Tonga would begin to develop its own common law in accordance with its own circumstances, environment, customs, people and values.

“But what will be most welcome if that was to happen, is if all judges in the Supreme Court, as well as in the Court of Appeal, were Tongans, and that the language used in the courts was the Tongan language, the language which everybody uses every day.”

Niu was born in Nukunuku and was raised by his grandparents, as his parents had their hands full with his nine siblings and 17 half-siblings. Niu, at the age of six, had to walk two-and-a-half kilometres to the next village, Fatai, to attend his primary school. He was the top of his class every year. When he was 11, he passed the national examination to attend Tonga High School, the only student in Nukunuku and Fatai who passed the exam that year.

At Tonga High School he was an excellent pupil and was one of three students awarded a Tongan Government Scholarship to study in New Zealand. He attended Auckland Boys Grammar School for one year, before studying at the University of Auckland. He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1974 and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor to the Supreme Court of New Zealand in 1975, now known as the High Court of New Zealand.

Niu said his career path had not been an easy one and credited his wife Helita Gallahar to standing by his side during difficult times, particularly after opening his own practice in Tonga in 1981.

“She sacrificed her wish to be in New Zealand with her family to come back with me to live in Tonga… People in Tonga do not have much money and the income from our own practice could barely see us through.”

It was never his goal to be appointed to the Tonga Supreme Court, he said he simply served his clients to the best of his abilities throughout his career.

“In all my years of practice, I did what I did for the best interests of my clients, without fear or favour, and even for no money. I suffered with my clients when we lost and we rejoiced when we won. That is all I have done. I was elected annually president of the Tonga Law Society by my colleagues for 26 years. I was appointed to Government Law Revision Committees and to the Police Board, but never once did I aim to be appointed a judge.