Chief Justice - retired March 2019
The Right Honourable Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias GNZM QC
Chief Justice 1999 - 2019
Sian Seerpoohi Elias was born in London (13 March 1949). She was raised in New Zealand where she was educated at Titirangi Primary School and Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland.
In 1966, Dame Sian entered Auckland Law School, graduated in 1970 with LLB (Hons) and was admitted to the bar. After gaining a JSM from Stanford she entered legal practice in 1972. 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 addition to general litigation practice, Dame Sian represented claimants in a number of Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal hearings including the claims in respect to the Mohaka River, the Whanganui River, Broadcasting assets, Muriwhenua Fishing, Aroha Geothermal and Moriori. She also appeared in court litigation concerning the Treaty of Waitangi relating to fisheries, the transfer of land to State-owned enterprises, Māori language in broadcasting, and the conduct of Māori the electoral option.
From 1986 until 1990 Dame Sian served as a Law Commissioner where she had a particular responsibility for the reform of Company Law. 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.
On 17 May 1999, at the age of 50, Dame Sian became the 12 th Chief Justice of New Zealand. In the same year, she was also awarded the GNZM (Dame Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit). Dame Sian retired on attaining the age of 70 years on 12 March, as required by s133 of the Senior Courts Act. She was the third longest-serving Chief Justice since the office was established in 1842.
In 2004, the Supreme Court of New Zealand was established as New Zealand’s highest court. The Chief Justice was designated as a member of the Supreme Court and as its presiding officer. The other four most senior judges serving at the time were appointed to the Court. At the Special Sitting for the New Zealand Supreme Court in July of that year Dame Sian spoke of the aspirations for the Court.
“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
Commissioning ceremony 2017 photo by Simon Woolf