Sian Elias

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The Right Honourable
Dame Sian Elias
GNZM PC QC
12th Chief Justice of New Zealand
Incumbent
Assumed office
17 May 1999
Nominated by Jenny Shipley
Appointed by Sir Michael Hardie Boys
Preceded by Thomas Eichelbaum
Administrator of the Government
In office
23 August 2011 – 31 August 2011
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister John Key
In office
4 August 2006 – 23 August 2006
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Helen Clark
In office
22 March 2001 – 4 April 2001
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Helen Clark
Personal details
Born (1949-03-13) 13 March 1949 (age 65)
London, United Kingdom
Spouse(s) Hugh Fletcher
Children Edwin
Benjamin
Alma mater University of Auckland
Stanford University
Profession Barrister

Dame Sian Seerpoohi Elias (born 13 March 1949) GNZM PC QC[1] is the 12th and current Chief Justice of New Zealand,[2] and is therefore the most senior member of the country's judiciary. She is the presiding judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand and has on several occasions acted as Administrator of the Government.

Early life and family[edit]

Born in London in the United Kingdom of an Armenian father and a Welsh mother (hence her Welsh forename and Armenian surname), Elias attended Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland. She completed a law degree from the University of Auckland in 1970, and then undertook further study at Stanford University.[2] She took up employment with an Auckland law firm in 1972, beginning her career as a barrister three years later. She also served as a member of the Motor Sports Licensing Appeal Authority and of the Working Party on the Environment.

Elias is married to Hugh Fletcher, former CEO of Fletcher Challenge and a former Chancellor of the University of Auckland. In 1994, her brother-in-law, Jim Fletcher, was stabbed to death by an intruder in his Papamoa beach house.[3]

Early judicial career[edit]

Elias served as a Law Commissioner from 1984 to 1988. She is also known for her work in relation to various Treaty-related cases. In 1990, she was awarded a New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal in recognition of her services. In 1988 she and Lowell Goddard were made the first women Queen's Counsel in New Zealand. Elias became a judge of the High Court in 1995, and occasionally sat on the Court of Appeal.[4]

Appointment as chief justice[edit]

On 17 May 1999, Elias was sworn in as Chief Justice of New Zealand, the first woman to hold that position in New Zealand.

Appointment as Administrator of the Government[edit]

One aspect of the role of Chief Justice is the role of Administrator of the Government when the Governor-General is unable to fulfil their duties (due to illness or absence from New Zealand or some other cause).[5] Elias has held the position of Administrator of the Government from 22 March 2001 until 4 April 2001, between the terms of Sir Michael Hardie Boys and Dame Silvia Cartwright, from 4 August 2006 until 23 August 2006 between Cartwright's term and that of Sir Anand Satyanand, from 23 August 2011 until 31 August 2011 between the terms of Satyanand and Sir Jerry Mateparae, and at other times when the Governor-General has been unable to act.

Support for Maori Treaty claims[edit]

In 1984, Elias helped Nganeko Minhinnick's Manukau Harbour claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. This led to work on other treaty cases, including a claim to prevent the Government selling radio frequencies, and the case challenging the 1994 Maori electoral option. This work gave her an appreciation of Maori custom and aspirations that she still fosters among the judiciary and in her private life. In June 2003 she was involved in a landmark case which allowed for the possibility that the Maori Land Court could issue freehold title over the foreshore and seabed. The subsequent legal uncertainties and upheavals in Maoridom dominated the political agenda for the next 18 months.[6]

The Blameless Babes speech[edit]

In July 2009 Elias caused controversy with her remarks in the annual Shirley Smith address, organised by the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Law Society's Women-in-Law committee. The annual lecture is given in honour of noted criminal defence lawyer, Shirley Smith. The speech was entitled "Blameless Babes" after a quote from Smith, who wrote "[providing] a prison at the bottom of the cliff is not a solution. Criminals will just go on falling into it, at great cost to the community. We have to find out why blameless babes become criminals."[7]

In her speech, Elias expressed concern about prison overcrowding and argued against what she described as the "punitive and knee-jerk" attitude of politicians towards the criminal justice system.[8] She said prison overcrowding had to be managed to prevent "significant safety and human rights issues". She also said several other changes were needed in the criminal justice system including increased education and understanding by the community that, since "criminal justice processes are largely irrelevant to crime reduction", we need to address the causes not just the effects of crime.[9] She said New Zealand needed greater focus on early intervention for youth and vulnerable families, improved mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, greater use of community-based sentences, and a fundamental rethink in the way the probation service monitors offenders.[10]

As a final point, Elias said that unless New Zealand takes action to address the underlying causes of crime, Government may be forced into the position of using executive amnesties to reduce the growing number of prisoners. The chief justice's comments were widely reported in the media and led to a public rebuke from Simon Power, the Minister of Justice, who said: "The Chief Justice's speech does not represent Government policy in any way, shape or form".[11]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Eichelbaum
Chief Justice of New Zealand
1999–present
Incumbent
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Michael Boys
Administrator of New Zealand
2001
Succeeded by
Dame Silvia Cartwright
Preceded by
Dame Silvia Cartwright
Administrator of New Zealand
2006
Succeeded by
Sir Anand Satyanand
Preceded by
Sir Anand Satyanand
Administrator of New Zealand
2011
Succeeded by
Sir Jerry Mateparae