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Portrait of Dame Sian Elias, gifted by Law Society unveiled at old High Court

03 October 2019 - By Nick Butcher

A portrait of the first woman to appointed Chief Justice of New Zealand was unveiled at the historic old High Court in Wellington last month (26 September).

Photo of Sian Elais
Portrait of Dame Sian Elias, 12th Chief Justice of New Zealand

The portrait of Dame Sian Elias, commissioned by the New Zealand Law Society, was painted by Australian artist, Jude Rae.

A special ceremony was held at the old courthouse which was built between 1879 and 1881. The event included a gathering of several judges of the district, high, appeal and supreme courts, along with queen’s counsels and other lawyers.

Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann pays tribute

Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann who is the 13th Chief Justice, after being sworn in earlier this year, spoke about a vision of Sian Elias to have the portraits of all the Chief Justices to hang on the walls of the restored courtroom.

“It feels like all of the Chief Justices are with us, when looking around the room,” says Dame Helen Winkelmann.

Dame Sian is the first woman Chief Justice to adorn the walls.

Dame Helen recalled how in August 2017, when all of the portraits to date were up on the walls, how Dame Sian introduced all of the judges of the courts to the portraits to remind everyone of their predecessors in the law.

“By explaining to us the legacy of these chief justices, Dame Sian was giving us our whakapapa (genealogy) in the law. This reminded us of the values we have in common and the fundamental nature of the goals that we pursue through the law and the continuity that holds our systems of law together,” she says.

The New Zealand Law Society has funded all but two of the portraits.

Law Society President Tiana Epati pays tribute

In paying tribute to Dame Sian Elias, Law Society President Tiana Epati, who pulled the string to unveil the portrait recalled how she was in her final year of law school when Dame Sian was appointed Chief Justice.

“Like many lawyers of my generation, until recently, I had only known the Chief Justice to be Sian Elias. You not only served as an exceptional leader of the judiciary but you had the courage and conviction to fight for what you believed in.

“We have all learned from your example the importance of integrity, to not be afraid to speak out about injustice, to consider the people, not just the case, and respect views that are different from our own, and treat everyone equally.

“As a lawyer from the ‘Sian Elias generation’, I can say we are all bolder, braver and better for having had you standing at the stern of the waka,” she says.

Dame Sian Elias responds

After the unveiling, Dame Sian Elias told the gathering it is somewhat unnerving speaking at the welcoming of a painting in which she is the subject.

Photo of Sian Elias 2

“I’d like to express my deep admiration to the painter, Jude Rae. She has amazing powers of observation. From the moment I sat for her on the first day, I didn’t have a moment’s anxiety about the outcome. Jude might have, but I didn’t.

“People have asked me whether I’m happy with how I look in the portrait. I really can’t look at it like that. I can’t get behind the impact that it makes because it’s me,” she says.

Dame Sian says she thoroughly enjoyed watching Jude work and says it went all too quickly.

“It was one of the most satisfying episodes of my life, very intense and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to sit for Jude and count her as a friend,” she says.

Dame Sian Elias finished by extending her gratitude to the New Zealand Law Society for gifting the works.

“It has been incredibly generous in the tradition of the portraits of the Chief Justices. The Law Society has been the principle support. This sort of support symbolises the bonds between the practising profession and the judiciary without which the rule of law would be at risk,” former Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias says.

Last updated on the 9th October 2019