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Mai is one of NZ’s top constitutional and administrative law experts, specialising in central and local Government policy and legislation, and litigating major public law cases. Mai also specialises in evidential issues concerning cultural and linguistically diverse litigants. Mai is also a judicial review specialist. She is a Barrister with over 30 years of experience in Public and Administrative Law, Te Tiriti o Waitangi Issues, regulatory, judicial review, inquiries and reviews and employment law issues. She has also worked extensively in law and policy reform, as the cases below show, she has also had extensive advocacy experience from the Supreme Court down to various Tribunals.
Mai was named in the Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life in the Global Diversity List, supported by The Economist. Mai specialises in advising Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) parties in the Courts, especially in areas of regulatory breach and enforcement.
Mai advises on complex employment issues for boards and CEOs and has expertise on investigations and governance issues. She has acted for public and private organisations and is a top legal problem solver and litigator. She is known as a creative problem solver, often of last resort when conventional legal thinking has been tried and failed. She has a gift for settling difficult legal problems. She has a good strategic brain and can pretty accurately predict what is likely to happen and thus how best to prevent a certain decision or achieve a particular outcome. Mai is also a thought leader, a direction setter and a futures thinker.
Mai is approved by the New Zealand Law Society to take direct instructions from clients in certain situations.
Mai’s many appearances are set out below, but Mai has advised a range of public and private sector agencies, regulators, Chairs, CEOs, and individuals over the last 30 years in all of her areas of specialty and is well-recognised as one of New Zealand’s top lawyers and problem-solvers.
Specialist areas of expertise
- Investigations, Inquiries and reviews
- Advising statutory bodies and regulators
- New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, human rights and Treaty of Waitangi issues
- Judicial review
- White collar fraud and regulatory defence
- Education law
- Regulatory Law
- Conflicts of interests and governance issues
- Treaty of Waitangi settlements, and claims in the Waitangi Tribunal and Courts, including foreshore and seabed claims
- Policy and law reform and select committee submissions
- Employment law for statutory bodies, or for employees of state sector employers
Key roles and achievements
- Senior and Founding Partner, Chen Palmer Public and Employment law Specialists, New Zealand
- Former Adjunct Professor at University of Auckland School of Law and was previously Adjunct Professor in Commercial and Public Law at the University of Auckland, Business School.
- Chair the Superdiversity Institute of Law, Policy and Business
- President of New Zealand Asian Lawyers.
- Former independent non-executive Director, Bank of NZ Board and Chair, BNZ People and Remuneration Committee
- Securities Commission member
- Inaugural Chair, NZ Global Women, NZ Asian Leaders, Superdiverse Women
- Top 10 finalist, 2014 and 2016 New Zealander of the Year
- Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life, Global Diversity List supported by The Economist
Chen Palmer was recognised as a top boutique Law firm in 2022 by NZ Lawyer. It also won the Best Boutique Law Firm in 2010, and Best Public Law Firm in the New Zealand Law Awards from 2007-2011, and 2013, and was a finalist in the Employment Law Awards in 2011. The Firm has offices in Wellington and Auckland and celebrated its 20th Anniversary in November 2014. Chen Palmer was one of NZ’s first boutique law firms and was Australasia’s first “Washington-style” law firm specialising in legislation and public policy.
Mai is the best-selling author of Public Law Toolbox published in 2012 and 2014 (2nd Ed).
2017 Zonta Women of the Biennium
2013 Business and Entrepreneur Women of Influence Award
Mai won the supreme Judges Panel Award and the Professional Excellence Award at the New Zealand Chinese Business Elite Awards in 2012, and also the Business and Entrepreneur Women of Influence Award in 2013. Mai won Next Magazine’s Business Woman of the Year in 2011, and is a World’s Best New Zealander in the Kiwi Expatriates Network. Mai was listed in the 2009 and 2010 unlimited magazine’s top Influencers List.
Mai sat on the NZ Board of Trade and Enterprise’s Beachheads Programme, the Asia New Zealand Foundation, the Advisory Board of AMP Life Limited (NZ), and was President of the Harvard New Zealand Alumni Association (NZ) for ten years.
Mai has a First Class Law Honours degree from Otago University, a Masters degree from Harvard Law School, is a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Management, and an Honorary Associate of Auckland University of Technology. She was born in Taiwan and emigrated to NZ in 1970 with her family. She became a NZ citizen in 1977.
Mai has published numerous reports on the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business Website.
Chairperson, Ministerial Inquiry into the Policy concerning Women in Combat, 1989-1990
Appointed by the Associate Minister of Justice to undertake scoping review of the Privacy Act 1993 in 2001
1988 – Irving Oberman Memorial Award: Best Human Rights thesis at Harvard Law School. Topic: Treaty of Waitangi and Māori rights
Commissions of Inquiry, Ministerial Committees or similar forums
- State Services Commission’s investigation into the conduct and behaviour of the Retirement Commissioner. I acted for Diane Maxwell who was the Retirement Commissioner at that time during 2018 to 2019. Maria Dew QC reported in April 2019.
- Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, 2009. I made written submissions on behalf of clients.
- The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance 2007. I advised Vector Ltd, and also the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust, with Vector’s authorisation.
- Ministerial Inquiry into Matters Relating to Taito Phillip Field, July I acted for Taito Phillip Field.
- Auditor-General Inquiry into the Tumuaki of the Institution for conflicts of interest and other behaviour in 2004 to 2005. I acted for Te Wānanga O Aotearoa and its Tumuaki.
- I undertook an “Independent Review of the Electricity Complaints Commission Code of Practice: An Inaugural Review after Six Months Operation” in March of 2003, including industry consultation, and recommendations for changes to the Code.
- I advised the Chair of the Crown Forestry Rental Trust Sir Graham Latimer in 2003 on the Report of the Māori Affairs Committee into the Crown Forestry Rental The Inquiry straddled two Parliaments (46th and 47th Parliaments) and lasted for more than two years.
- Appointed by the Associate Minister of Justice Hon Margaret Wilson to undertake scoping review of the Privacy Act 1993 in 2001. Mai Chen “Scoping Paper on the Privacy Act 1993” prepared for the Hon Margaret Wilson, Associate Minister of Justice (Chen Palmer & Partners, Wellington, 27 April 2001).
- Inquiry by the Local Government and Environment Select Committee on petition 2000/106 by Penelope Bright and others requesting that the Committee inquire into the “charging and practices” of Metrowater Ltd. I advised Metrowater, which was a council controlled organisation.
- I undertook the inaugural Periodic Process Review of the Banking Ombudsman (1999 to 2000) and the Second Periodic Process Review in 2001-2002. Both reports were published.
- Office of the Controller and Auditor General’s Inquiry into Capital Coast Health Ltd’s integrated IT system purchase and implementation in 1999. I acted for Capital Coast Health
- Chairperson, Ministerial Inquiry into the Policy concerning Women in Combat – 1989 to 1990.
- Ministerial Inquiry on the Auckland Energy Supply Crisis, 1998. I appeared as counsel for Mercury Energy, with Sir Geoffrey Palmer
- Internal Affairs and Local Government Committee into the New Zealand Fire Service Commission. I acted for the New Zealand Fire Service Commission along with Sir Geoffrey Palmer. See Report of the Inquiry into the New Zealand Fire Service Commission, Report of the Internal Affairs and Local Government Committee, House of Representatives, 1998,1.7B.
- I acted for Healthcare Otago in an inquiry into the organisation under section 95 of the Mental Health Act in
- Commission of Inquiry into Certain Matters Relating to Taxation (the Winebox Inquiry, 1994). Sir Geoffrey and I advised clients implicated by the Inquiry.
- I acted for the person being investigated in a statutory inquiry under sections 11(4) and 25 of the State Sector Act 1998 concerning allegations of impropriety which required her to step down as chairperson of the New Zealand Teachers Council while the matter was investigated by Sir Rodney Gallen.
- I made a submission on behalf of the Children’s Commissioner to the Constitutional Arrangements Committee to ensure that children’s rights as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 were properly taken into account.
Recent and notable appearances
Mai has appeared before a range of fora including the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal in New Zealand and the Cook Islands, the High Court, the Commerce Commission, the Regulations Review Committee and other select committees, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Apple & Pear Export Consents Committee, the Electoral Commission, the Waitangi Tribunal and the Real Estate Agents Authority.
Mai’s appearances include:
- Donglin Deng v Lu Zheng – SC 5/2021. I appeared as counsel for the Law Society, whose intervention the Court invited to advise on the interpretation of documents translated from Mandarin and the cultural setting in an arrangement between two Chinese parties whose business relationship appeared to have been conducted in Mandarin.
- Unison Networks Ltd v Commerce Commission  1 NZLR 42. I was the counsel for Vector Ltd, which was an intervenor in the proceedings. We made written submissions, but the Court decided not to hear oral submissions from Vector after two days of hearings. I was led by Alan Galbraith QC.
Court of Appeal
- Attorney-General v Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand  NZCA 609. I was counsel for the respondent.
- Attorney-General v Unitec Institute of Technology  NZCA 317. I was counsel for the respondent.
- Hosking v Runting & Ors  NZCA 34;  1 NZLR 1. I was counsel for the appellant. I was led by Bill Wilson QC.
- Inatio Akaruru v Tiaki Wuatai and Chief Electoral Officer, 2001, Cook Islands Court of Appeal, Civil Division. I was counsel for the appellant, Sir Geoffrey Henry.
- Exide Technologies Ltd v Attorney-General  NZCA 651. I was counsel for the appellant.
- McRitchie v Taranaki Fish and Game Council  2 NZLR 139. I was counsel for the respondent. I was led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer.
- Capital Coast Health Ltd v New Zealand Medical Laboratory Workers Union Inc  1 NZLR. I was counsel for the appellant. I was led by Phillip Green.
- Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua v Kingi and Dargaville  NZHC 1384. I was lead counsel for the plaintiff. The Hon Justice Harvey found that Kingi’s application should be struck out according to tikanga.
- Te Pou Matakana Limited v The Whānau Ora Community Clinic & Ors- CIV-2022-485-569. I am lead counsel for the respondents and the matter is ongoing
- Rimmington v Waikato Regional Council and another CIV-2022-419-120 – discontinued on 16 August 2022.
- Application by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua for orders recognizing customary marine title and protected customary rights (CIV-2017-404-563).
- Winton Property Investments Limited v Minister of Finance and Others  NZHC 638.
- Jones and PPTA v Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand / Matatu Aotearoa  NZHC 1581. I was counsel for the respondent.
- Parrot Society of New Zealand Incorporated v Auckland Council (CIV-2020-404-1735). I was counsel for the applicant. This matter was settled before trial.
- Andrew Lowe Trustee Company No. 2 Ltd v Dahlenburg CIV-2020-404-1718. I was lead counsel for the first and second plaintiffs. This matter was settled before trial.
- E R Bellas Limited v Karikari Charitable Trust Incorporated  NZHC 2517. The costs judgment was released in R Bellas Limited v Karikari Charitable Trust Incorporated  NZHC 3262, where I acted for the respondent.
- Discoveries Educare Target Road Limited and Others v Secretary of Education CIV 2020-404- 749 & CIV 2019-485-560. This was three proceedings consolidated into one. I was counsel for the plaintiff. I argued the interlocutory application for interim orders and subsequent to that hearing, the Crown agreed to defer implementation of the Secretary of Education’s three cancellation notices until the judicial review application had been determined. The matter was settled the week before the judicial review hearing in the Wellington High Court.
- Bus and Coach Association (New Zealand) Incorporated v Attorney-General  NZHC 1474 (decision on interim orders application) and 1559 (reasons). I was counsel for the plaintiff. These decisions relate to an interlocutory application for interim orders. The proceedings were withdrawn before the matter went to a substantive hearing.
- Chief Executive of Land Information New Zealand v Agria (Singapore) PTE Limited and Lai Guanglin  NZHC 514. I was counsel for the defendant.
- Department of Internal Affairs v Qian Duoduo Limited  NZHC 1887. I was counsel for the defendant.
- New Zealand College of Midwives Inc v Attorney-General CIV-2015-485-685. I was counsel for the plaintiff. This matter was settled before trial.
- Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand v Attorney-General  NZHC 1701. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- New Zealand Motor Caravan Association v Thames-Coromandel District Council  NZHC 2016. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- New Zealand Motor Caravan Association v Westland District Council CIV-2013-418-5. I was counsel for plaintiff. This matter was settled before trial.
- Green v Waitangi Tribunal  NZHC 723. I was counsel for the intervener.
- Board of Trustees of Phillipstown School v Minister of Education  NZHC 2641. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- Williams v New Zealand First Party CIV 2014-404-2172. I was counsel for the plaintiff. This matter was settled before trial.
- Conservative Party v Electoral Commission CIV-2014-404-2098. I was counsel for the plaintiff. This matter was settled before trial.
- Board of Trustees of Salisbury Residential School v Attorney-General  NZHC 3348. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- Exide Technologies Ltd v Attorney-General HC Wellington CIV-2011-485-1549, 16 September 2011. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- The Australian and New Zealand Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons Inc v The Dental Council of New Zealand CIV 2009 485 2475. I was counsel for the plaintiff. This matter was settled before trial.
- Bierre v Clark CIV-2008-404-7235. I was counsel for the plaintiff. This matter was settled before trial.
- Unitec Institute of Technology v Attorney-General  NZLR 65. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- Whangamata Marina Society Inc v Attorney-General  I NZLR 252. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- JH Tamihere & Ors v E Taumaunu & Ors CIV 2005-404-6958. I was counsel for the first and second defendants.
- Smithkline Beecham (NZ) Ltd v Minister of Health (2002) 16 PRNZ 361 (HC). I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- Manawatu Polytechnic & Anor v Attorney-General & Ors HC Wellington CP 324-97, 2 September 1998. I was counsel for the third and fourth respondents, Wellington Polytechnic and Massey University. A competitor of the Manawatu Polytechnic sued to prevent the merger proceeding between Wellington Polytechnic and Massey University.
- Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand Inc & Ors v Attorney-General & Anor HC Wellington CP 391-98, 8 December 1998. I was co-counsel for the plaintiffs along with John Eichelbaum, who was a partner at Chen Palmer at the time.
- Taranaki Fish and Game Council v McRitchie  3 NZLR 611. I was counsel for the appellant.
- New Zealand Association of Residential Care Homes Inc v Northern Regional Health Authority, unreported, High Court, Auckland Registry, CP 522/96, 18 December 1996, Temm J. I was co-counsel for the plaintiff along with Dr David Cairns, who was a partner at Chen Palmer at the time.
- Ryan v Disciplinary Committee of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand & Ors HC Wellington CP 79-94, 8 June 1994. I was counsel for the plaintiff.
- CIV-2022-419-0120: Rimmington v Waikato Regional Council & Anor
Māori Land Court
- Cross-application of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua concerning the bed of the Hoteo River, A20200013952, 2021 – Lead counsel on behalf of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua.
- Lane v Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand (CIV-2020-085-000581). I was counsel for the respondent.
- MPI vs Allan Angus/Epicurean 2019 NZDC 21845. I was counsel for the defendant Epicurean. I argued two applications for name suppression for the defendant before the Court. A plea bargain was negotiated and the client ultimately pleaded guilty. The final appearance was undertaken by another partner at Chen Palmer.
- Auckland City Council v Morlan Tong  NZDC 19242. I was counsel for the defendant.
- NZ Medical Laboratory Workers Union Inc v Capital Coast Health Ltd EC Wellington WEC 45/94, 12 August 1994. I was counsel for the defendant. I was led by Phillip Green.
Human Rights Review Tribunal
- Sy v Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (HRRT 029/2020).
- IHC New Zealand v Ministry of Education (Non-party Access to Tribunal File)  NZHRRT 2.
Alcohol Regulatory & Licensing Authority
- Karikari Charitable Trust Incorporated v E R Bellas Limited  NZARLA 106.
Disciplinary Tribunal of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants
- Disciplinary Tribunal of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants, 15 June 2020, under the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants Act and the Rules made thereunder.
Employment Relations Authority
- Labour Inspector v Sail City Venture Limited and Anor  NZERA 268.
- Hua XU and 29 others & National Personnel Limited 3051252, 2019.
- Labour Inspector v E Ming Limited  NZERA 196.
- Webber v Midlands Health Network Ltd (Auckland)  NZERA 47.
Immigration and Protection Tribunal
- Tingjia Li v the Immigration and Protection Tribunal  NZHC 174..
- CP (Entrepreneur Residence Visa)  NZIPT 204934.
- Raukura Hauora O Tainui Trust (Wai 3019, #2.1.1.
- Decision on application for an urgent hearing, WAI 745 and 1308 (2019) (Waitangi Tribunal).
- The Kōhanga Reo claim filed by the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, WAI 2336 (2012) (Waitangi Tribunal).
- The Aotearoa Claim concerning Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, WAI 1298 (2005) (Waitangi Tribunal).
- He Maunga Rongo: Report on the Central North Island Claims (WAI 1200, Wellington Legislation Direct, 2008) (Waitangi Tribunal).
- Claim by James Pohio and the descendants of Ngati Mutunga (1988 to 2004) (WAI 65).
- The Wai 45 (Muriwhenua) record of inquiry. The hearing was held from 2 to 7 September 2012 at Kareponia Marae, Awanui, and on 18 and 19 September at the Environment Court in Auckland.
Mai’s Diverse Thinking Matrix
Applying the Diverse thinking Matrix, I was born in Taiwan and my family emigrated to NZ when I was six and a half years old. We emigrated to Christchurch and we were the second Taiwanese family in the South Island. I was the youngest of four daughters. None of us spoke English. We came to New Zealand as my Dad was recruited to train the New Zealand’s Gymnastics Team. He also worked at the YMCA.
We were Buddhists, but our parents sent us to the local church, which just happened to be Baptist, after learning that the “C” in YMCA means Christian.
My parents did not insist we speak Mandarin at home as the teachers from school said our English was poor and we had a lot of catching up to do.
We arrived in NZ with $120 USD that my parents’ families had given to us. We lived in Bryndwr in a state house and we were poor. Mum had to work and I started cooking for the whole family when I was 10. I had my first paid job picking fruit when I was 10. We got our first car to take a holiday to see snow on the mountains. I had never touched snow before, and we never made it to the mountains that day as the car broke down.
My first trip overseas from NZ was when I won the National Jaycees Speech competition and was sent to Sydney as part of the Prize when I was 15 years old.
I played a lot of sport and captained the Netball, Volleyball and Basket teams I played on. I was in the Gymnastics team and the tennis team, and I also debated. I became Dux and Head Girl and won Best All Around Student when I was in the seventh form. I went to public schools.
I married Dr John Sinclair who was born in Grimsby in the UK; his parents are from the Shetland Islands and Aberdeen. I bought my own wedding ring as he was a poor student. I won 8 scholarships which allowed me to take my husband with me when I went to Harvard Law School, and paid for all my fees, books and health insurance. This was the only financial assistance I got as my parents never wanted us on welfare of any sort. They wanted us to work for what we got and to give back to our adopted country. Our New Zealand born son is Eurasian and raising him has deepened my own CQ and my understanding of identity for those who come from several different ethnicities. I got my first woman’s watch that was not a man’s hand me down watch from my Dad when I was 32 years old. My husband gave it to me for my birthday.
I did voluntary work for the Christian Scripture Union Holiday programme looking after teenagers. That is where I met my husband. I also worked on Youth for Christ’s Te Hou ora Programme with troubled girls referred from the Department of Social Welfare, as it was then called. I also ran a dance group for those girls for 4 years while I was at university. I played at Easter tournaments with the NZ Chinese association Basketball team.
I worked at the UN in Geneva at the ILO on a Harvard Human Rights Scholarship on indigenous peoples’ rights and on women’s rights. I was a regulator when I sat on the Securities Commission. I really liked being a regulator and I was good at it.
I have learned a lot about making big heavily regulated organizations work well in my almost seven years on the BNZ Board and chairing the People and Remuneration Committee. Banking is important, challenging, and complex.
Teaching with Sir Geoffrey Palmer at Victoria University School of Law and then starting Chen Palmer, NZ’s first Public law and boutique law firm was a unique learning experience about politics, the media, about public policy and about the law. I was also the inaugural chair of the Global Women for three years.
The work I have done establishing the Superdiversity Institute, NZ Asian Leaders and Superdiverse Women have given me a unique perspective on NZ’s superdiversity and how that impacts business, public policy and law.
I travel to develop my own CQ and Africa and Israel were recent trips pre-COVID that really challenged me.
I run and do yoga most days and have a good network of yogi friends. I swim.
I have known what it is to be powerless and to be looked down on, underestimated and discriminated against, and I have known what it is to be wealthy and powerful. I often feel I have lived 3 lives in one already, but it gives me a unique insight into others’ lives and an empathy that is worth the pains I have sometimes experienced on my journey.