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Chief Justice - retired March 2019

Chief Justice Dame Sian EliasThe Right Honourable Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias studied law at the University of Auckland, graduating with LLB (Hons), and was admitted to the Bar in 1970. She gained a JSM from Stanford University in the United States, before entering legal practice from 1972 in Auckland. Dame Sian served as a Law Commissioner from 1986 until 1990. She was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1988 and a judge of the High Court in 1995. Justice Elias became Chief Justice in 1999, and was awarded the GNZM the same year. Dame Sian became a member of the Supreme Court on its establishment in January 2004.



Update 8 March: Valedictory sitting for retiring Chief Justice:
The Right Honourable Dame Sian Elias GNZM PC QC

Dame Sian Seerpoohi Elias was born in London (13 March 1949).  Her father was Armenian and her mother Welsh.  She was raised in New Zealand where she was educated at Titirangi Primary School and Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland.

In 1966, she entered Auckland Law School a couple months before her 17th birthday. She graduated in 1970 with LLB (Hons) and was admitted to the bar.  She gained a JSM from Stanford University in the United States and in 1972 entered legal practice in Auckland.  Three years later she began her career as a barrister. 

In the late 1970’s when she was caring for her two young sons Dame Sian worked for the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office.

In practice, she represented claimants in a number of Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal hearings (the Manukau claim).   Tribunal claims included the Mohaka River, Whanganui River, Broadcasting, Muriwhenua Fishing, Aroha Geothermal and Moriori.

She appeared as counsel in litigation concerning the Treaty of Waitangi, including litigation about fisheries, the transfer of land to State enterprises, broadcasting, Māori language and the Māori electoral option.  She also appeared in many non-Treaty cases.

From 1986 until 1990 Dame Sian served as a Law Commissioner.  She was appointed as a Queen’s Counsel in 1988 and received the Commemorative Medal for services to the law profession in 1990.  In 1995, she was made a judge of the High Court.

In 1999, at the age of 50 she became Chief Justice.  In that year, she was also awarded the GNZM (Dame Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit).

In 2004, the Supreme Court of New Zealand was established as New Zealand’s highest court.    Dame Sian was appointed to the Supreme Court along with the other four most senior judges.  At the Special Sitting for the New Zealand Supreme Court in July of that year Dame Sian spoke of the aspirations for the court.

Quote -

The Act setting up the Court also identifies a statutory purpose of better understanding of New Zealand conditions, history and traditions. In addition, we may hope to obtain greater understanding of the role of courts and some of the constitutional balances referred to in the Act. The obscurity of our appellate arrangements to date has not helped such understanding.
Following the establishment of the Court, there are signs of greater interest in engagement on the constitution and the role of the courts in it. And that is very much to be welcomed.”
Speech: The Special Sitting of the New Zealand Supreme Court, 1 July 2004.

As Chief Justice Dame Sian has also been the Administrator when required.  In that role she has performed the constitutional duties of the Governor General when the Governor General has been overseas and when a new Governor General is to be appointed.  In her term as Chief Justice Dame Sian has also sworn in four Governor Generals.

Government house photo 2016

In 2017, Dame Sian Elias along with Justice Ellen France and Justice O’Regan wore the new New Zealand ceremonial robes for the first time at the Commissioning Ceremony in Parliament.  

Commissioning ceremony 2017 photo by Simon Woolf

The new robe will form an important part of the legacy that Dame Sian leaves having been the Chief Justice of New Zealand.


The Senior Courts Act 2016, section 133 requires members of the judiciary to retire on attaining the age of 70 years.  On 12 March 2019 Dame Sian will reach that age.

Her retirement has been marked by a conference exploring the direction of our law (hosted by the Legal Research Foundation with the support of the New Zealand Law Foundation) in Auckland earlier this year and by a valedictory sitting at the Supreme Court. 

On her retirement Dame Sian will have served for 19 years as the Chief Justice of New Zealand Aotearoa.  She is the third longest serving Chief Justice.


Rt Hon Dame Sian Elias, GNZM, speech given at final sitting

Address Solicitor-General Una Jagose QC, given at valedictory sitting Rt Hon Dame Sian Elias, 8 March 2019 (pdf, 125.7 KB)

Speech notes Kathryn Beck, President New Zealand Law Society, 8 March 2019 (pdf,496.7 KB)

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