Dame Sian Seerpoohi Elias, born March 13, 1949, is the 12th and current Chief Justice of New Zealand, and is therefore the most senior member of the country’s judiciary. She is the presiding judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. As Chief Justice, she also acts as the Administrator of the Government (acting Governor-General) when the position of Governor-General is vacant or if the Governor-General is overseas. Elias has held the position of Administrator of the Government from March 22, 2001 until April 4, 2001, and again from August 4, 2006, until August 23, 2006.
Born in London in the United Kingdom of an Armenian father and a Welsh mother (hence her Welsh forename and 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. 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. She served as a Law Commissioner from 1984 to 1988. Elias 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 is married to Hugh Fletcher, former CEO of Fletcher Challenge and a former Chancellor of the University of Auckland.
Elias became a judge of the High Court in 1995, and occasionally sat on the Court of Appeal.
On 17 May 1999, she was sworn in as Chief Justice of New Zealand, the first woman to hold that position in New Zealand. When the government announced plans for the establishment of a Supreme Court (replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the final court of appeal in New Zealand), it was decided that Elias, as Chief Justice would automatically be appointed to the new body. The Supreme Court commenced sitting in the middle of 2004.
In July 2009 Elias caused controversy with her speech for the annual Shirley Smith address to the Wellington District Law Society, arguing against what she described as the “punitive and knee-jerk” attitude towards the criminal justice system. In response, Minister of Justice Simon Power said that it is up to the Government to set sentencing policy and judges to apply it. Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar stated Elias should resign because of her stance, but academics and lawyers lent support to the points raised in her speech.