Can you tell us about your role, what you love about it and what it is teaching you about yourself?
Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou katoa. I’m extremely lucky to have a role at Taumata Arowai–the Water Services Regulator. Taumata Arowai is a relatively new Crown entity that came into existence at the start of March 2021. We’re currently focussing on administering the Water Services Act 2021, which largely came into force in mid-November. In very broad terms, the organisation’s goal is to ensure that people receive safe drinking water and, over time, to help lift capability and capacity across the wider water services sector. That’s often referred to as the ‘3-waters’ of drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater.
I’m loving the challenge and opportunities associated with the creation of a new agency. It’s not often you get the chance to help shape an organisation from the outset. As a legal team, we’re contributing to the ongoing building of systems and processes necessary to function as a Crown entity and regulator while also helping to operationalise new legislation.
The flipside of all that change and opportunity is a great deal of uncertainty, which needs to be navigated at pace (I’m sure that will sound pretty familiar). One of the main things that has taught me so far is the need to be quite disciplined around distinguishing legal risks that need time and attention from those that we can let slide for one reason or another. That has meant accepting that it’s neither possible nor necessary for us to wade into everything. Effective communication with our colleagues in the business is key to gauging where the balance lies.
What have been your most recent challenges as General Counsel and how did you address these?
One of our biggest challenges at the moment is responding to the rich variety of real-world circumstances our regulatory staff are encountering. Our legislation is based on a lot of research and policy work that closely examined how things work in the water services sector. However, it’s inevitable that situations no-one contemplated will emerge. We’re trying to help guide our people through those situations with clear and practical advice, although that’s not always straightforward with untested statutory provisions. So far, we’ve found it’s best to circle the wagons to look at these issues as a group, alongside colleagues from our regulatory and policy teams. That tends to lead us to sensible outcomes that are practical to implement, while also ensuring everyone is on the same page. By the same token, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of purposive interpretation going on! A silver lining is that these issues have given us plenty of opportunities to examine provisions in the Legislation Act 2019 that commenced recently.
Te Mana o te Wai is a pou of the new drinking water legislation – how does this impact how the legal team communicates and acts?
Te Mana o te Wai is a water-centric concept defined in an instrument made under the Resource Management Act – the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020. It recognises the holistic value of water and that protecting the health of freshwater also protects the health and well-being of the wider environment. It is principles-based and recognises a hierarchy of interests with the health and well-being of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems at the apex. Apart from the value the concept embodies, I think two aspects of it are really significant. First, it operates as a form of connective tissue across different statutory regimes concerning the management of aspects of water. Second, it strongly recognises a te ao Māori worldview and approach. As a pākeha and lawyer (read: conservatively trained), I’ve found that the latter requires a deliberate tilt in thinking. However, it also opens up new solutions to problems and is really exciting to engage with.
It is a statutory objective of Taumata Arowai to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, to the extent it relates to the organisation’s functions and duties. Similarly, everyone exercising or performing a function, power or duty under the Water Services Act 2021 must give effect to Te Mana o te Wai to the extent it is relevant. These provisions make Te Mana o te Wai a mandatory consideration for many decisions made by or for Taumata Arowai. As a legal team, we’re conscious of the need to make sure this occurs and that we can demonstrate it. At the same time, we’re working alongside other teams – particularly our Strategy & Insights Group – as our thinking continues to evolve about what Te Mana o te Wai means in our context. We also receive valuable guidance from the Māori Advisory Group appointed to advise our board and organisation.
How do you see the role of the modern in-house lawyer changing in practice?
I have a sense that the in-house lawyer is often a rock in the sea of uncertainty that seems to characterise our current times. It sounds a little bit trite, but with all the COVID-induced changes to ways of working and major reforms underway or mooted in significant policy areas (health, environment, education, local government, etc.), I think the classic trusted confidante and advisor role is of ever-increasing significance. Internal clients need someone who can provide a balanced, objective view of the risks and issues that abound. That ‘acid test’ function won’t necessarily always be about purely legal issues, but no matter the context it’s dependent on the deep understanding of an organisation’s interests and activities that in-house lawyers tend to have. If anything, I think that tends to push the modern in-house lawyer more and more into the strategic advisor role, which is a great place from which to contribute and influence.