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Tania Sharkey, being sworn in as a District Court Judge. Photo/PMN News/Khalia Strong

Tania Sharkey, being sworn in as a District Court Judge. Photo/PMN News/Khalia Strong

Photo/PMN News/Khalia Strong

Law & Order

PMM's Summer Series: 'No greater calling for me' - Tongan lawyer sworn in as District Court Judge

Tania Sharkey is the first Tongan to be appointed to the prestigious position of District Court Judge in the family jurisdiction.

Khalia Strong
Khalia Strong
10 January 2024, 7:29am
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Welcome to PMN's Summer Series, where we republish some of our best and most popular stories from the last 12 months - in largely their original form.

Tongan pride was on full display at Auckland’s Manukau District Court to witness a historic event.

The courtroom and corridor was packed with family, friends and royalty, all there to celebrate Tania Sharkey’s swearing in, as the first person of Tongan descent to be appointed as a District Court Judge in the family jurisdiction.

“I, Tania Margaret Sharkey, of Auckland, swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty, King Charles III, his heirs and successors, according to law, so help me God.”

Turning to address the Queen Nanasipau’u Tuku’aho of Tonga, Sharkey admitted she was "overwhelmed" at the turnout.


“My appointment serves a much larger purpose than my own. Tonga, and the people of Tonga, living here and back home, are never far from my mind, and there is no greater calling for me than to serve."

The prestigious position is one of less than 200 district court judges across the country, who deal with up to 200,000 criminal, family, and civil matters each year.

Overcoming obstacles

In front of her mother, husband and children, Sharkey remembered telling her ailing father at age seven she wanted to become a lawyer, saying the event was a "momentous occasion" for her family and village.

“Becoming a judge has been a dream of mine, a dream that has today become a reality," she told those gathered.

“I do not think there would be many people in Auckland who do not know how proud I am to be from Houma, and not just because my licence plate is ‘Houma’. I am pleased to add District Court Judge of New Zealand to the achievements on the map for Houma, Tongatapu.”

During the ceremony, speakers acknowledged Sharkey’s dedication to family and her work ethic, how she picked up part time jobs such as cleaning and picking onions when she was still in school. With the support of her mother, Kalolaine Fotu Sharkey, the Law Society’s Antonia Fisher KC says Sharkey defied 1990s New Zealand culture.

“One example of such a battle was when the judge’s 7th form dean tried to discourage her mother from paying for her final exams … that it was a waste of time to pay for the exams because she would not pass them. Her mother would not be dissuaded though, and, through her tears, insisted that her daughter be allowed to take the exams.”

Sharkey not only passed, but graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB) and was admitted to the bar in 2003, adding a Master of Laws (LLM) degree two years later.

Over the next 18 years, Crown Solicitor Natalia Walker said Sharkey established herself as a lawyer with a passion for family cases.

“Your presence on the Family Court bench in Manukau, as the first Tongan judge to do so, will continue to break down barriers and provide inspiration to all of those who appear before you.

“You saw an unmet legal need, there were very few Pacific lawyers appointed to those important roles.”

Sharkey’s accolades include four years as president of the Pacific Lawyers Association, and lead counsel during the Pacific Peoples investigation at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

During her speech, Sharkey says this experience was a career highlight that holds significant relevance in her new role.

“That experience only strengthened my knowledge and understanding of the least, the last, and the lost in our society, but also reinforced key learnings about how engaging the community in this work is not only possible, but essential.”

Barrister and former colleague Hemi Arthur says Sharkey will make an amazing judge.

“In the family court, we talk about diversity, but for me, diversity is not just about being brown, diversity is about diversity of background, of thought, of ideas, and so that’s what she’ll bring with her to the bench.”

The crowd proudly sang at the end of the ceremony, some getting up to dance and proudly wave the Tongan flag.​

​Labour MP ‘Anahila Kanongata’a says it’s an exciting milestone for the Tongan people, and for Sharkey’s family.

“I’m just so honoured and privileged to see my cousin become a judge today, and I look forward to her contribution to the justice system.”

Sharkey will take up her appointment at the Manukau District Court.