Pene Mathew: legal challenges

One of the challenges for the new Dean of the Auckland Law School, Professor Pene Mathew, will be how artificial intelligence could affect the legal profession.

Professor Pene Mathew, Dean of the Law School
Pene for your torts: Professor Pene Mathew, Dean of the Law School. Photo: Dean Carruthers

Professor Pene Mathew has a reputation for caring about social justice and diversity in education. 

She has taken up her role as Dean of the University of Auckland Law School after moving to New Zealand in March, from Griffith University in Queensland. Before that, she’d taught at Melbourne Law School, the Australian National University College of Law, and Michigan Law School in the United States.

“I’d been dean at Griffith for four years and was very happy in that role, but I felt I’d come to the end of the challenges. I went on sabbatical and did some research with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – work around the Global Compact on Refugees.”

Professor Mathew says around 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, which are the least equipped to deal with them. The UN has tried to set out some principles, although these are non-binding.

She’s been working on the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees.

“But I also had an eye out for senior leadership roles and this one came up. It’s a very good university and a very good law school.”
Right now she’s meeting with staff to talk about what might change around the way in which the Law School can equip students for the future?

“There are also broader challenges around what the legal profession is going to look like. For example, how will Artificial Intelligence (AI) affect it and how should the curriculum evolve to help students deal with its changing nature?”

Another issue is one raised by alumna Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann in the May issue of UniNews and Autumn Ingenio – that law schools need to address a lack of diversity in their students.

“My faculty is already very firmly on board with that. Auckland Law School does have a natural advantage in that the city is multicultural. I’ve been really struck by the Māori and Pacific populations here and my faculty is very committed to equity and diversity. We already have a small taskforce thinking about precisely the issue the Chief Justice has raised, particularly around students of lower socio-economic background.”

Dame Helen said law schools don’t give disadvantaged students enough time to achieve.

“What Dame Helen might be talking about is that you may be privileging kids who have a private school background, for example, versus those who haven’t had the time to achieve in secondary school to get the required results.

“There are kids who are really battling, with no quiet space to study at home. They don’t have the kind of social and cultural capital of parents who’ve been to universities themselves, and who know how to prepare their child for that and how to access the resources and those sorts of things.”

Growing school
Professor Mathew says big-picture thinking is needed with the Law School on a growth trajectory.

“What is the legal profession going to look like? We need a diverse profession. How do we get more lower socio-economic students into Law School? Those are exciting challenges, but they take time to think through with your colleagues.”

As far as gender equity goes, the Law School is doing well. “The numbers have been healthy for some time – it’s probably slightly more women studying law, about 60-40. Looking beyond the University, we have another female chief justice and some women in senior positions. But when you look at the top echelons of the profession, we’re still lacking. There aren’t the same number of women partners or Queen’s Counsel.”

She says more law firms need to think about how to accommodate women during the child-rearing years. “To have educated these high-performing women and then lose them, and not see them progress to top positions, is a bit heartbreaking.”

When it comes to people arriving by boat without a visa, Australia’s policies have been dreadful. Draconian.

Professor Pene Mathew

Human rights

Professor Mathew is an internationally respected expert in human rights and refugee law, and was entering academia just as Australia brought in its mandatory detention policy for boat arrivals.

“I cut my teeth writing about arbitrary detention being a violation of the right to liberty. In Australia, we’re still quite high on the list of countries that do a very good job of resettling and integrating refugees. But unfortunately when it comes to people arriving by boat without a visa – the policies have been dreadful. Draconian.”

She says despite a concerted campaign to get children out of off-shore detention centres on the island of Nauru, and with some refugees accepted into the US, the issues are ongoing.

“The US has an extreme vetting process which means certain nationalities are not accepted. The risk of mental illness for refugees and asylum seekers is very high. The strain on health services in Nauru and Papua New Guinea is ridiculous.

“Papua New Guinea is a developing country. At one stage, Nauru was quite wealthy but it’s a small community. They don’t have the facilities, possibly even for their own population, but certainly not for the kind of complex trauma refugees may have.”

While detention in the formal sense is over on Manus and Nauru since the creation of an “open centre” on Nauru and the closure of the Manus Detention Centre, the reality is far from that. “The refugees are not wanted. There have been quite a number of violent incidents, so it’s dangerous.

“Nauru is small [13,000 people on 21 sq km of land] and if they don’t belong in that community, and don’t want to be there, you could argue they’re still in detention. Mandatory detention is bad. But the offshore detention, where it’s indefinite and in places that shouldn’t be asked to cope with Australia’s refugees, is appalling.”

Access to justice

She’s also aware of a crisis in access to justice at home, in New Zealand and Australia, and says if more graduates were prepared to move outside the main centres it would help.

“You want to produce graduates who have a firm sense of social justice. It’s not just about being a proficient technician. Most Australian law schools have, using the American term, clinical legal education programmes, where students are actively placed with a community legal service.

“They deal with the most vulnerable members of the community and that’s often the experience students will say was the highlight of their entire degree – helping those who really, really need it.

“The president of the Law Society, Tiana Epati, talks about the joys of being a lawyer and the fact you can say to someone ‘I know what to do and I will take that stress away from you and I will solve this particular problem’. That’s a very empowering position to be in.”

By Denise Montgomery

The Auckland Law School is planning a women’s mentoring programme for law students. To become involved, email

A version of this story is also available to read in the June issue of the University of Auckland's UniNews magazine