Valedictory Sitting of the Rt. Hon. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias GNZM PC The valedictory sitting of former Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, was held on 8 March 2019, some 24 years after she was first sworn in as a judge of the High Court of New Zealand. At that time, she was a highly respected member of the independent bar and in 1988 was one of the first women to be appointed QC in New Zealand. At the sitting, speaking for the New Zealand Bar Association,1 Kate Davenport QC remarked that her Honour had been a smart, bold, brave and resolute advocate, these being qualities which were essential in an advocate. Solicitor-General, Una Jagose QC, referred to Dame Sian’s steely resolve, bravery and humanity, as exemplified during her representation of He Taua group who had been charged with rioting, among other charges, following their efforts to stop the Engineering students from their “tradition” of performing mock haka in capping day antics at the University of Auckland.2 Ms Jagose remarked: “The clash between what was seen, wrongly, as lighthearted capping antics and Māori values and tradition became violent and – through your defence of the group - became a seminal moment for Aotearoa.” Ms Davenport noted that Dame Sian appeared in several landmark cases, including as lead counsel for the appellant in the 1993 Privy Council case, NZ Maori Council v AttorneyGeneral (the Maori Broadcasting Rights case). While this case was unsuccessful at the Privy Council, it did result in significant recognition of Crown duties and obligations and pave the way to the enactment of Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori 2016/Māori Language Act 2016. Kathryn Beck, the President of the New Zealand Law Society, noted Dame Sian’s role in Nganeko
Minhinnick's Manukau Harbour claim in the Waitangi Tribunal, which she had said was a lifechanging time for her Honour:3 “The Tribunal's report in 1985 described it as the most wide-ranging claim it had considered up until then. The Tribunal’s findings set out a new basis for the Māori role as kaitiaki, guardians, of their ancestral lands and waterways throughout the country.” Ms Davenport noted that when Dame Sian was sworn in as Chief Justice, there were serious challenges and fundamental change facing the courts. We were still grappling with the concepts of partnership or plurality under the Treaty of Waitangi, bedding down the Bill of Rights Act, and when the establishment of the Supreme Court was mooted, many lawyers remained doubtful about New Zealand abandoning the Privy Council as its most senior court in favour of a local final court. The naysayers said that we needed a final court that was not subject to the winds of change produced by political policy. It was argued that a final court based in New Zealand would not be able to withstand these pressures in the same way that the Privy Council had done. However, Ms Davenport said, the Supreme Court has thrived and under Dame Sian’s guidance, won over the New Zealand profession, while providing access to justice for ordinary New Zealanders who cannot afford to litigate in a country 18,390 kms away from the seat of their complaint. It has also achieved a maturity and mana that compares more than favourably with the senior courts in similar jurisdictions. Both Ms Davenport and Kathryn Beck referred to the 2009 Annual Shirley Smith Address,4 which Dame Sian delivered. This was a balanced and careful response to the question of how innocent children turn into those occupying prison cells.
Davenport, K. “Speech by the New Zealand Bar Association President, Kate Davenport QC, on the Occasion of the Valedictory Sitting of the Rt Hon. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias GNZM PC QC” 8 March 2019, Supreme Court, Wellington. 2 Jagose, U. “Address by the Solicitor-General at the Valedictory Sitting of Rt. Hon. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias as Chief Justice of New Zealand and Tokelau.” 8 March 2019, Wellington 3 Beck K. “Chief Justice Sian Elias – Valedictory sitting: Speech Notes” Friday 8 March 2019, Supreme Court, Wellington. 1