Retiring Supreme Court chief justice Dame Sian Elias is leaving the role with a platinum-plated superannuation entitlement seeded with at least $3.3 million of public money.

That nest egg, likely worth millions more, comes from a uniquely generous super scheme that sees judges, including Elias, able to contribute up to five per cent of their salaries to a superannuation fund that is then topped up by $7.50 for each dollar they contribute.

ACT Party leader David Seymour said a similar, albeit less generous, scheme for MPs - seeing contributions from Parliamentarians matched with a $2.50 subsidy - was widely-considered to be gold-plated.

"I've long thought MPs superannuation was pretty generous, but, actually, it's tidbits compared with a 7.5 times contribution matching," he said.


Elias, appointed to the High Court in 1995, has been the country's chief jurist since 1999 and had led the Supreme Court - the country's highest - since its formation in 2004.

Based on two decades of Remuneration Authority decisions outlining Elias' salary and other benefits, starting in 1995 with a total package of $205,400 and ending with this years' earnings of $739,950, Elias has been entitled to contribute $441,395 over the years - and had it bolstered with $2.85m in matching subsidies.

Depending on how the sum was invested the retirement package could be worth millions more. If her fund achieved returns equivalent to the average performance of the NZX50 index over the past decade - 6.69 per cent - Herald on Sunday modelling suggests Elias will leave the Supreme Court building next year with around $6.5m in the bank.

A spokesperson for the courts said Elias was in Australia and unable to comment.

Constitutional conventions based on ensuring the judiciary has independence from the executive has seen parliamentarians shy away from criticising or amending the scheme, with salaries and superannuation entitlements instead set by the independent Remuneration Authority.

Dame Fran Wilde, chair of the authority, defended Elias' entitlements: "This is not a golden handshake, but a well-established constitutional obligation."

She said the scheme was designed to ensure the integrity of the judicial system by ensuring judges were "free from income pressures both during their time on the bench and afterwards" and was similar to arrangements in other countries.

Wilde noted Elias' tenure was unusually long - with the judges typically serving 16 years on the bench compared with Elias' 24 - and the average "annual retirement fund will be a lot lower".


Seymour said the scheme appeared over-engineered. "There are useful constitutional reasons for judges to be independent, well-paid and above bribery, but $3m? That's a lot she's above."

The new Government has made reining in high-end public sector salaries a priority, making high-profile decisions to can performance bonuses for Ministry chief executives and freezing the pay of MPs.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said in 2013, when he was in opposition, that the judicial super scheme was "one of the most generous I've ever heard of " and considered the subsidy - on top of public-sector leading salaries - gave the judiciary "some of the highest incomes for anyone in the country."

Little this week reaffirmed his general view, but declined to address the payout.

"The scheme is very generous, there's no question of that. But the way it applies to a specific judge would be inappropriate to comment on," he said.

"Judges occupy a vital part in our constitutional setup, and there's a need to ensure the independence of judges so they don't feel they can be somehow held to ransom by politicians or parliament."

"Government has taken clear and decisive actions on reining in public sectors salaries at the top end - we've led the way on that - but when it comes to judges they have a set of arrangements and constitutional conventions and it is not appropriate for politicians to hoe into them."

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said New Zealand had specific legislation prohibiting cuts to judicial pay or conditions, and a case in Canada in the 1980s over a proposal to have judges contribute more to their super schemes was rejected - by judges of the Canadian supreme court - as unconstitutional.

Geddis had sympathy for Little's position: "That's the constitutional problem underlying all of this: The separation of powers. The idea that the executive branch could set the terms and conditions of the judiciary is much more fraught than, for instance, setting public service salaries."

Geddis said the high pay for judges was largely a function of higher-still salaries in the private sector, from where judges were recruited.

"The reality is that lawyers – at the very highest level – have very, very high incomes. You do end up with this result, that judges salaries have crept up and up and up. I would say with confidence that a senior QC would pull in more than a million dollars a year."

Elias is married to former Auckland University chancellor and Fletcher Challenge chief executive Hugh Fletcher. The Fletcher family, whose ancestor founded Fletcher Building in 1909, were earlier this year assessed by the National Business Review as being worth $105m.

The couple, given Elias is 69 and Hugh is 70, qualify for fortnightly New Zealand Superannuation payments of $701.52 and free public transport through the SuperGold Card.