DAME SIAN ELIAS
Judge
1949

New Zealand's first female Chief Justice

Sian Elias arrived in New Zealand with her father - the son of Armenian refugees - and Welsh mother as a toddler from London.

They settled in Titirangi and Dame Sian attended Diocesan School for Girls in Epsom. After obtaining her University Entrance early, Dame Sian skipped her final year of school and enrolled at Auckland University to study law in 1966.

At the time she was one of only half a dozen females, including future Attorney-General Margaret Wilson, in a class of well over 100 young men.

Dame Sian graduated with honours and was admitted to the Bar in 1970.

She married Hugh Fletcher in 1970 and the couple studied further at Stanford University in California, where she gained a masters in law.

They returned to Auckland in 1972 and her legal practice began.

Dame Sian's career went from strength to strength, at the same time she was raising two sons. From 1986 to 1990 she served as a Law Commissioner, then in 1998 Dame Sian and Lowell Goddard were chosen to become the first women Queen's Counsel.

In 1995 she was admitted to the bench as a High Court judge and went on to become Chief Justice – the first woman to do so - in 1999.

The same year she was awarded the GNZM and she became a member of the Supreme Court on its establishment in 2004.

As a lawyer, Dame Sian specialised in company law, but it was her work and association with Treaty of Waitangi law which was her claim to legal fame.

In 1979 Elias was working part-time at the Grey Lynn neighbourhood law office when she worked for some Māori and Pacific Island defendants accused of attacking a haka party of Auckland University engineering students.

In 1984, she helped Nganeko Minhinnick's Manukau Harbour claim to the Waitangi Tribunal.

That led to work on other high-profile treaty cases.