The first Chief Justice of our Supreme Court has warned of "civic disorder" if New Zealand does not find a way of resolving the imbalance Maori and Pasifika suffer from in our justice system.

"It's not something we can continue to live with," Dame Sian Elias said after being questioned over reports that 50 per cent of Maori and Pasifika had criminal records.

"We are at risk of criminalising a distinct population. If that person (who asked the question) is accurate, we have a recipe for civic disorder."

The comments came following a speech to 200 people at Maxim Institute's Sir John Graham lecture in central Auckland which Elias devoted to the importance of New Zealand's fluid, piecemeal constitution.


It was followed by a question and answer session, during which Elias was asked about the position of women in law.

She said she was troubled that issues that confronted women when she went into law still existed, when she had hoped then her grandchildren would find gender imbalance laughable,

"It is still not a laughing matter. I think, personally, it's time for women to get really angry.

"If they think they are not sufficiently valued, if they think they are not getting a fair crack, I think they should leave."

Elias said the legal profession captured staff with "unrealistic incomes" and women were better striking out on their own, even if it meant passing up the higher salaries, and forging their own path.

"There are people out there who need help. There are really good careers out there to be made. If women are not enjoying the lives they are doing out there, they should regroup and do it themselves."

Elias said women had not learned the lessons of the suffragettes, who won the right to vote. She said the women who did that did not do so to allow benefits for affluent women.

Instead, she said, they wanted to change the world.


"It's time for women to be ambitious enough to change the world they are in."

Elias earlier spoke of New Zealand's "dynamic constitution" built from "a collection of fragments of old statutes and modern ones ... and case law".

"It is fragile. It is not well-known. It is like a cats-cradle. It is easy to move a strand here and not realise the damage done there.

"It requires constant vigilance by everyone. If it is the preserve of only lawyers and judges, it is vulnerable.

"Unless we are prepared to work harder at maintaining our dynamic constitution, one of the big questions that will have to be faced in the years ahead is whether the risks of imperceptible erosion will drive us to adopt what my Australia friends like to speak of as a "Capital C" constitution."

Elias is due to stand down in March next year, having reached the compulsory retirement age of 70 for judges.

The government is only at the early stages of choosing a replacement. The Attorney General has been briefed on the process, which sees the Prime Minister making the final decision.

Elias rose to the Supreme Court when it was formed in 2004, having been appointed Chief Justice in 1999.

Elias' legal career enjoyed a solid foundation and rapid ascent. She was admitted to the Bar in 1970 after studying law at the University of Auckland. Further study in the United States led to practise as a lawyer in Auckland in 1972.

She served as a law commissioner from 1986 to 1990, was one of the first two women appointed Queen's Counsel in 1988 (the other being former Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright) and a judge of the High Court in 1995.

Elias is married to Hugh Fletcher, former CEO of Fletcher Challenge and former University of Auckland chancellor.

Sir John Graham was long-time headmaster of Auckland Grammar, a former All Black and University of Auckland chancellor.