Outgoing Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias says she is happy to relinquish the job after 20 years and has described the "truly wonderful" time she had in the role.

At her valedictory speech at the Supreme Court in Wellington this morning, Elias reflected on her time as Chief Justice and the "amazing experiences" she had over the past 20 years.

"It's been a particular privilege during my time as Chief Justice to sit on the High Court, the Court of Appeal and from its setting up in 2004, on the Supreme Court."

She said the establishment of a final Court of Appeal was "a highlight of my years in law".


"It has opened up possibilities for New Zealand law that were not available to the judges who served before us."

Elias was appointed in 1999. Late last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern praised Elias, saying she had performed her role with excellence and had "represented New Zealand superbly on the international stage".

Elias has had a decorated career in law. She first entered Auckland Law School just before her 17th birthday – graduating four years later and being admitted to the bar.

Later, she attended Stanford University in the US and formally entered the legal profession in 1972 in Auckland.

From 1986 until 1990, she served as a Law Commissioner and was appointed as a Queen's Counsel in 1988 and received the Commemorative Medal for services to the law profession in 1990.

In 1995, she was made a judge of the High Court and four years later, at age 50, she became Chief Justice.

Today, she said one of the biggest satisfactions she has had during her time as Chief Justice was working with "colleagues of the calibre I have had on the court since its inception".

"They have all had beautiful minds, even if they have sometimes been wrong-headed. They are very dear friends indeed and I will miss them as I will miss the day-to-day contact with all of the judges."


She spoke at length about her love of law.

"It's impossible to explain why justice matters to people – it's a concept that's essential to the human spirit, but it is fragile."

In closing, she said she was happy to relinquish the office of Chief Justice.

"I have had a truly wonderful time, with amazing experiences and great personal satisfaction in the judicial work. But it is high time to stop.

"I am delighted, as we all are, in our new Chief Justice."

Justice Helen Winkelmann will be the new Supreme Court Chief Justice, and officially takes up the role next Wednesday.