Reviving Indigenous Justice: Authentic Restorative Māori Processes in New Zealand

The quest for a fair and equitable justice system has long been at the heart of restorative justice (RJ) philosophies worldwide. However, a contentious issue arises within this pursuit, particularly in Western contexts, where advocates of restorative justice often claim that their practices are derived from Indigenous traditions. This assertion, while well-intentioned, oversimplifies and misrepresents the complex tapestry of Indigenous justice systems. Nowhere is this tension more palpable than in New Zealand, a nation grappling with its colonial legacy and the stark disparities faced by its Indigenous Māori population within the criminal justice system.

Reviving Indigenous Justice: The Potential of Māori Processes” delves into the heart of this issue by spotlighting the disproportionate representation of Māori in New Zealand’s criminal justice statistics—a glaring indicator of systemic failures. This piece not only critiques the misplaced claims of Western RJ proponents but also foregrounds the rich, nuanced, and deeply relational Māori approaches to conflict resolution that have been marginalized and eroded under colonial influence.

Comprehensive research by Juan Tauri and Allison Morris, which involved consultations with over 50 Māori elders, this paper uncovers the potential of integrating traditional Māori justice mechanisms into the contemporary landscape. These mechanisms, rooted in collective responsibility and the restoration of balance, contrast sharply with the individualized blame and punitive focus of the mainstream system. Through the revival of these practices, the article argues for a transformative approach that re-empowers Indigenous communities and reimagines justice in a way that is more inclusive, healing, and restorative for all.

Moreover, the piece critically examines the challenges and complexities involved in reclaiming these Indigenous practices, including the need for Māori-led initiatives, the re-education of urban Māori youth, and the integration of non-Māori offenders and victims. It emphasizes the importance of self-determination and the delicate process of navigating the interface between Indigenous autonomy and state authority, drawing parallels with Indigenous justice movements in Canada, Australia, and the U.S.

By presenting Māori justice not as an ethnic-specific program but as a foundational shift towards a decolonized and restorative justice framework, “Reviving Indigenous Justice” invites readers to reconsider the essence of crime, punishment, and healing through a lens of interconnectedness and communal well-being. It challenges the false narrative of Western ownership over restorative practices and calls for a genuine engagement with Indigenous wisdom and leadership to craft a justice system that truly serves all its people.

Reviving Indigenous Justice: The Potential of Māori Processes


For decades, the criminal justice system in New Zealand has failed to equitably serve its Indigenous Māori population. Māori are grossly overrepresented in court and prison statistics – in 1996, they made up just 13% of the overall population yet accounted for 37% of apprehended offenders and over 50% of the prison population. This stark imbalance has driven calls from Māori leaders and academics to revive traditional Māori conflict resolution practices rooted in restorative justice philosophies.

A recent in-depth study by Juan Tauri and Allison Morris explores this idea by consulting over 50 Māori elders on how customary justice processes could be implemented today, especially in fragmented urban communities. Their findings point towards a promising path for reducing Māori overrepresentation while re-empowering Indigenous peoples and re-forming mainstream justice systems alike.

At its core, traditional Māori justice revolved around collective responsibility rather than individualizing blame. The driving aim was to restore the relational and spiritual balance disrupted by wrongdoing. This meant making amends not just to the victim, but to their whole family or tribe as well. Elders, tribal leaders, victim representatives and the offender’s own family group would all play active roles in holding the offender accountable while reintegrating them through agreed-upon sanctions like restitution, apologies or community service.

Unsurprisingly, these holistic practices were systematically undermined through British colonization and assimilationist policies designed to extinguish Indigenous autonomy. As one Māori leader lamented to the researchers, “We are heading towards the 21st century. Māori offending and recidivism are not being reduced and the Pākehā (European) solution – sending our offenders to prison – is obviously not working.”

To move forward, the Māori elders consulted advocated a step-by-step approach starting with less serious offenses. They envisioned using urban marae (communal grounds) as restorative justice hubs, where decision-making panels of respected Māori leaders, social workers and community members could hear cases initially involving youth, first-time or minor offenders. Restorative plans would emerge through consensus among all stakeholders, including offenders, victims/families and tribal representatives.

The paper lists the following practices and approaches recommended by the over 50 Māori elders who were interviewed:

  1. Deal initially with young, first-time, and minor offenders through Māori justice processes, before potentially expanding to more serious offenders later.
  2. Use the marae (communal meeting grounds) as the site for Māori justice processes, especially in urban areas where marae could be established as the focus.
  3. Have sanctions like restitution and community service imposed by decision-makers who are not just kaumātua (elders), but also other experts and respected people from the Māori community.
  4. Involve offenders’ whānau, victims, and victims’ whānau in the justice process.
  5. Ensure any Māori justice system is controlled and run by Māori, not an extension of the mainstream justice system.
  6. Establish an inter-marae and inter-iwi panel representing various tribes/sub-tribes to avoid accusations of bias when hearing cases.
  7. Re-educate urban Māori, especially youth, about marae protocol and te reo Māori (Māori language) to make them comfortable with marae-based processes.

The elders recommended a cautious, incremental approach starting with minor cases while building experience, before potentially taking on more serious offenders through Māori justice processes grounded in Māori values and practices.

Critically, the elders stressed any Māori justice initiatives must be controlled and led by Māori themselves – not simply become an extension of the failing mainstream system. Several voiced concerns about potential obstacles such as re-educating urban Māori youth on marae protocol, determining qualified decision-makers beyond just elders, and handling cases involving non-Māori offenders or victims.

Yet despite these complexities, the paper highlights how reviving customary Māori practices could catalyze a shift towards more restorative justice for all New Zealanders. It points to the successful implementation of family group conferences for youth offenders, which incorporates restorative elements like involving victims/families and seeking consensual resolutions. While still ultimately operating under state authority, this system has increased participation, healing and accountability compared to traditional courtrooms.

Looking abroad, examples from Canada, Australia and the U.S. showcase other Indigenous communities exercising degrees of jurisdictional autonomy through peacemaking circles, sentencing circles and community-run tribunals. While constrained by state legislation and funding, these initiatives demonstrate how revitalizing customary processes can empower First Nations peoples.

The New Zealand research reveals that from the Māori elder’s perspective, merely co-opting Indigenous symbolism or transferring mainstream courts to marae risks further alienating their people. True self-determination requires renegotiating the relationship between Māori and the state to honor the Treaty of Waitangi’s guarantee of “tino rangatiratanga” – independence and authority over their own affairs.

In this light, reviving Māori justice emerges as far more than an ethnic-specific program – it represents an opportunity to fundamentally transform how society views crime, punishment and healing. By embracing a worldview of interconnectedness, accountability and restoration over isolation and retribution, Māori traditions could help usher in a truly decolonized, restorative justice system fit for all New Zealanders in the 21st century.

The research conducted by Juan Tauri and Allison Morris underscores the importance of centering Indigenous voices and control in any restorative justice initiatives. It emphasizes the need for a comprehensive approach that goes beyond symbolic gestures or superficial adaptations of Indigenous practices within existing frameworks. Instead, it advocates for a restructuring of power dynamics to ensure genuine self-determination and autonomy for Māori communities.

By acknowledging the failures of past assimilationist policies and colonial legacies, New Zealand has an opportunity to chart a new course towards reconciliation and justice. Through the establishment of restorative hubs on urban marae and the integration of Māori principles into mainstream justice systems, there exists the potential to create a more inclusive and effective model of justice for all New Zealanders.

Ultimately, the revival of Māori justice is not just a matter of cultural preservation; it is a pathway towards decolonization and social transformation. By embracing the values of interconnectedness, collective responsibility, and restoration, New Zealand can forge a future where justice is truly equitable, healing is prioritized, and communities are empowered to shape their own destinies.