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Sandra Mary Moran, 1945 - 2011

By Chris Ryan

Members of the legal profession and former clients along with family and friends have mourned the death of Sandra Moran on 30 January 2011.

Sandra was a trailblazer for women lawyers. In 1989 she was the first woman to be elected as president of the Wellington District Law Society, then in its 116th year. She was also the first woman to hold the positions of the Society’s vice-present and treasurer, and served on a number of committees. She was deputy chair of the Wellington Law Practitioners’ Disciplinary Tribunal from 1992 to June 2005, and was a member of the New Zealand Law Society Council from 1987 to 1989.

Sandra Moran was born in Wellington on 9 June 1945. Her parents Peter and Mary were children of Lebanese immigrants and Sandra remained close to the Lebanese community throughout her life. She attended St Mary’s College in Wellington and studied law at Victoria University. She was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in February 1970.

She went to work at the firm of Alexander, JH & Julia Dunn. Her partner at Oakley Moran, Peter Cranney, said in his eulogy at Sandra’s funeral, that this was a “defining event” in her legal career.

“The formidable Jimmy Dunn took a shine to her and gave her the job. He was to be her mentor along with Tom Goddard, then a partner in the practice.”

The firm was mainly engaged in litigation, and while it was not particularly common then for a woman to appear in court, Sandra did so and did it very well. By 1971 she had become a partner.

In the early days of her career, she did a lot of criminal and domestic work, areas that she never abandoned. Peter Cranney said she acquired a reputation for success and began to receive many instructions from other clients and from other firms to handle criminal cases.

“She was particularly noted for her pleas in mitigation which she advanced in such a thorough and professional way that she gained the admiration of all the judges. On one occasion, after she had delivered her mitigation plea, her client approached her with tears in his eyes. When she enquired of him why he was crying, he said ‘Well, Miss Moran, I was so moved by your description of me that I didn’t even recognise myself’.”

Peter Cranney says her perceptiveness and eloquence helped make her a very effective advocate with juries. “Within a short time, Sandra became more heavily involved in the firm’s substantial defamation practice. She rapidly became one of the most experienced and highly regarded advocates and advisers in that area of the law, a reputation which remained throughout her life. In this context, she had contact with many publishers, editors, journalists and prominent people, either defending them or defending those who had criticised them.”

By the late 1980s, she was a partner in Oakley Moran, and practising widely in industrial and employment law. With legislative change and in an uncertain employment climate at the time, she argued cases which seemed to be unwinnable, but still won them.

“She argued for the right of a union to access workplaces. That case remains an important judgment to this day. She also successfully argued against the legality of a partial lockout, the effect of which would have seriously compromised wage earners. Again, before the result, that case was said to be unwinnable.”

In 1998, when the New Zealand Fire Service attempted to break the union by dismissing firefighters en masse, it was Sandra that the union engaged. After a long trial, characterised by courage, determination and skill, Sandra won the case.

The NZ Firefighters Union pays tribute to Sandra’s work on its website, in particular about her part in that 1998 case:

“It is no exaggeration to say that all firefighters owe a massive debt to Sandra. If it was not for her intellect, wisdom, effort and commitment, the Fire Service today would be a very poor and ineffective organisation indeed.

“Sandra also acted in many other landmark cases for other unions as well. [She] will be remembered with much affection and honour by the union.”

She continued to act for unions and workers up to the time of her death, and Peter Cranney says she was respected by the judges of the Employment Court, by the members of the Employment Relations Authority, and by the mediators in the mediation service.

Beyond the profession, Sandra served on a number of statutory bodies. She was deputy chair of the New Zealand Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal and its successor, the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal; president of the Film and Literature Board of Review (April 1995 to June 2001); independent advisor to the Medical Misadventure Unit of the ACC (and chair of the committee which preceded its establishment); and the legal member of the Chiropractic Board and the Psychologists Board.

She was a president of Zonta Wellington, executive member of the Wellington division of the Cancer Society of New Zealand, and founding member and trustee of the Cancer Institute of New Zealand.

Peter Cranney says Sandra did not regard the law as primarily a business. With her charitable instincts and sense of fair play, he says, she was focused on meeting the needs of her clients and “… for those who could not [pay], the fee was reduced or even waived.”

Sandra was an astute judge of character, an attribute which she employed to the great advantage of her clients. Whilst respectful of authority, she knew that, like the rest of humanity, those who sat in judgment had their foibles and limitations too. In the interests of those whom she represented, she did not shrink from any challenge. She was a person of great courage and, in litigation, did not take a backward step, as opponents often learned to their cost.

Peter Cranney read a message from past and present Judges of the Employment Court: “Sandra was, as has been noted correctly by others, an uncompromising upholder of the legal rights of the powerless, no less in employment law than in the other fields in which she practised. Sandra was noted and respected as a fierce advocate for her clients and it is not possible to think of any occasion when they could have had a better job done for them in court.”

This obituary was first published in Council Brief, March 2011.

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Last updated on the 26th July 2018