Nerissa Barber

Chief Legal Advisor: Ministry for Culture and Heritage

I currently work at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage - Manatū Taonga. I am very fortunate as this role allows me to combine my interest in the cultural and heritage sector with fascinating legal work. 

Nerissa Low
My role allows me to combine my interests in the culture and heritage sector with fascinating legal work.

While a small government department (around 130 people) the Ministry has a busy and varied work programme looking after many of the cornerstones of New Zealand’s diverse culture and protecting symbols of our nationhood: recording New Zealand’s history through Te Ara (the online encyclopedia), helping to protect Māori cultural objects (taonga tūturu), overseeing the legitimate exportation of New Zealand’s cultural products and supporting New Zealand’s museums through a regional museums’ funding programme. 

Manatū Taonga also holds responsibility for 11 Crown entities, the administration and enforcement of 18 Acts of Parliament (including the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act; and the Protected Objects Act), and the management of the Crown’s relationships with many of the external agencies in the cultural space who receive ongoing government funding – for example, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Music Commission, and Te Matatini. We report to three Cabinet Ministers (Arts, Culture and Heritage; Broadcasting; and Sport) and maintain a busy legislative programme.

With such a broad array of work, the legal issues we address are equally wide-ranging, touching on a mix of public, contract, IT and – in fact – just about every kind of law. A key part of our work is in Treaty law and working with Māori. Another responsibility, particularly meaningful at present, involves providing advice to enable the construction of the National War Memorial Park (Pukeahu) in Wellington and to support commemorations (both in New Zealand and overseas) relating to the First World War.

My work also involves Court appearances, which I really enjoy. The Ministry takes applications for ownership of newly-found taonga tūturu to the Maori Land Court, and because we are also responsible for the enforcement of the legislation we administer, we do undertake prosecutions from time to time. I get a lot out of being part of the Government Prosecutors’ Network. 

I started my career in one of the major private-sector law firms which provided me with excellent experience in banking and finance, and in general civil litigation. My first role in the public sector was in the State Services Commission in 1998, which was a marvellous opportunity. SSC has a whole-of-government view and, as part of a superb legal team, I learnt a lot about the machinery of government.

I have also worked at Crown Law – mainly in the Law Officers Team – and following that I worked at a trade association where I ran my own employment law cases throughout New Zealand, drafted contracts, advised on public law issues – really anything that came up. I loved my interactions with my clients but I could see patterns in how employment relationships and processes went awry. I wanted to be the ambulance at the top of the cliff, not at the bottom, so I gravitated to working in-house.  

I love it. I like learning about the business, working with colleagues who have different skills, and helping them achieve practical solutions.

An in-house career has enriched what I can offer to my wider colleagues and while at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage I have been active in the New Zealand Law Society. I have been a New Zealand Law Society Board member, served as Wellington President for two years and – after a gap – have been re-elected as President. I have convened Law Society committees including the Legal Assistance Committee (which works with community law centres) and the Women In Law Committee. The Chief Executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Lewis Holden, has been very supportive of my taking these and other leadership opportunities.

Throughout my time in the public sector, I have really enjoyed cross-government collaboration with incredibly knowledgeable people – the feeling that together we make a difference. I have also felt, and continue to feel, very privileged that my work keeps me at the heart of what it means to be a lawyer, what it means to work in government, and what it means to be a part of New Zealand’s wonderful culture and heritage.