An overflowing courtroom in Auckland was told this evening they were witnessing history as the first Tongan-born judge in New Zealand was sworn in.

Judge Mina Wharepouri is the first Tongan judge to serve overseas, but even in Tonga there’s only one Tongan-born judge, on the Court of Appeal.

It’s hard to imagine Judge Wharepouri as the young boy whose grades at Otahuhu College weren’t good enough to get into law school. Now he’s a District Court judge.

When Judge Wharepouri did get into law school, he graduated with honours and went on to do his master’s at Cambridge University in England — a far cry from his background.

“Mine was a traditional, working class,” he says. “We were working poor before that became popular. My parents struggled to make sure there was a roof overhead and food in the cupboard.”

Judge Wharepouri paid tribute to his mother.

“Were it not for your hard work and love I could have been sitting in dock of courtroom rather than here on the bench.”

Now his sons are imagining themselves on the bench too. Judge Wharepouri worked on many high-profile cases as a Crown prosecutor, then moved into criminal law.

Described as good-humoured and humble, fellow Tongan/Maori barrister Kahungunu Barron-Afeaki says Judge Wharepouri is respected across a wide spectrum.

“Judge Wharepouri has punched through a barrier, which for some reason has existed overseas to Tongans in the legal fraternity. Watch that space from here on.”

It’s a space that comes with great reward and responsibility.