Law has always been an important part of New Zealand identity according to legal academic Professor Geoff McLay.
In his inaugural professorial lecture at Victoria University next Tuesday, he will discuss whether New Zealand has its own unique legal tradition.
"Looking back at early court cases it is evident that the legal system was widely used from the very beginning," says Professor McLay.
"For instance, if you look back at early court proceedings in Wellington, although there was a small population back then, there were a large number of cases of people suing each other—they were constantly involved in quite complex court proceedings."
Professor McLay was part of a team working on the 'Lost Cases' project from 2007 to 2010, funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation, which involved the systematic search for, and collation of, early New Zealand legal cases from 1842 to 1869.
"Through this project we gained an insight into how New Zealand law was shaped, and we saw that from the moment new settlers arrived, locals started changing laws to modify many aspects of English law. For instance, a commercial whaling law was developed in the 1840s.
"The real question of New Zealand lawyers has always been what it means to develop a New Zealand legal tradition within a wider legal imperial or now commonwealth legal tradition. While much of the New Zealand legal tradition has involved borrowing from other countries, one of the great things about New Zealand legal culture today is our active culture of statutory law reform."
In his inaugural lecture Professor McLay, who is currently on a five-year leave of absence from Victoria University as a Commissioner at the Law Commission, will consider the direction New Zealand law is taking.
"I would like to see New Zealand legal academics focussing more on what happens in Government and Parliament, along with what happens in court.
"Lawyers are often providing advice to Government—we really are a country governed by law compared to many other countries. It's fascinating to observe how concerned we are with doing things right."
The public lecture—'A Capital Custom: Victoria and the New Zealand legal tradition'—is at 6pm in the Hunter Council Chamber, Level 2, Hunter Building, Kelburn Parade, at Victoria University's Kelburn Campus on Tuesday, 7 June. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org with 'McLay' in the subject line.