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Shirley Hilda Stanley Smith, 1916 - 2007

By Judge Ema Aitken

Shirley Smith was one of New Zealand's truly great women of the law...

Her first interest in being a lawyer was sparked, not unsurprisingly, by her father's work, but he discouraged that interest:  law he told her was no career for a woman, it was "too sordid".

She did not give the practice of law a second thought until late in the 1940s when she was in New York with her husband, Bill Sutch, who held the position of Secretary-General of the New Zealand Delegation to the United Nations.

The UN put on lectures for the wives and families of delegates and Shirley attended one of them given by a woman lawyer from the Status of Women Commission.

She recalled the incident in an interview with Neville Glasgow on National Radio in January 1989:

"I went to a lecture given by a woman lawyer from the Status of Women Commission. She stood up there on the platform. I can still see her in my mind's eye - a slim figure in a black suit who proceeded to speak in a most competent and fluent manner. What her subject was I have no idea. I didn't really take it in at the time because I was so fixated on looking at the slim figure in her black suit. And I said to myself 'You are a lawyer. If you can do it, I can'."

These words speak so powerfully to me (as a senior woman in the profession) of the role and importance in those early years of the women who graduated and went on to practise law. Shirley herself became for many younger women that "woman in the black suit" just by being a lawyer, both by teaching and practising. I have no doubt that she was equally as inspirational to other women as that woman lawyer was to her.

And I suspect it was this fact, and her many other subsequent achievements, particularly with the Law Society, which was recognised by New Zealand's first woman QC - now the Chief Justice Sian Elias - who, on being called to the Inner Bar, acknowledged Shirley's role in the law in her address. I am told that, at the mention of Shirley's name, every woman present rose to her feet to share in that acknowledgement.

On returning to New Zealand in 1951, and with little initial support from family and friends, she enrolled in the Law Faculty of Victoria University in 1952. She was 35 years old at the time. She graduated in 1957 and was admitted that year to the role of barrister and solicitor. At that time she was the 4lst woman in New Zealand to be admitted, notwithstanding that it had been 60 years since the first woman had been admitted.

Few women at Law School

There were only about five women in Shirley's class at law school and the whole law school was totally male dominated to the point where one lecturer even refused to let women students attend his lectures, and the traditional law faculty club's annual dinner excluded women from attending.

The male lecturer who excluded women was killed before Shirley was due to take his class so she did not have to address  that  inequality,  but she was understandably outraged by the exclusion of women from the faculty. Shirley took on the faculty, calling a special general meeting, having first enlisted the support of a number of sympathetic male colleagues. She addressed the meeting, adopting not the tone of outrage in principle, but of humour and persuasion, and the decision was reversed.

Perhaps not surprisingly (at least to me) Shirley was the only female student to attend the dinner. Fortunately, what might have appeared to be a palpable lack of support from the few other female students neither phased nor deterred her. This was just as well as, by the time she returned to the faculty as a lecturer, the dinners had reverted to men only affairs and Shirley was once again instrumental in, this time, bringing about a permanent change.

At around the same time, she took on both the Wellington District Law Society and the New Zealand Law Society on the same issue: the policy of excluding women lawyers from their dinners - another battle she won and a significant achievement at the time.

Lecturer at Victoria

Shortly after graduating, Shirley was asked to accept a position as a lecturer at the Law Faculty of Victoria. In accepting, she became the first woman academic on a university staff in New Zealand and, of course, was the only female member of the faculty while there. She taught Roman Law and Constitutional Law and, during her tenure, also became the first editor of the Victoria University Law Review.

Shirley Smith taught for only two years but was clearly highly regarded both for her significant intellect and her ability to engage and teach her students. Jeremy Pope was one of her Roman Law students  and  described her as a breath of fresh air, someone who "made the subject interesting and even entertaining. Suddenly the lecture room was a happy place to be".

Shirley's sense of humour was also apparent when the law faculty decided to abolish Roman Law as a subject. Her response? To throw a toga party for her students.

Her contribution to the university was not just in the quality of her teaching, but, as Jeremy Pope continues:

"More than this, she was an outspoken advocate for more women passing through the law school and, as there seemed to be a policy of reducing graduate numbers to a level agreed by the (almost entirely male) profession. This was considered to be extremely radical".

At age 45, Shirley decided, in her words, "to forsake the hill for the town", and left the university to return to the practice of law she had started as a clerk. It was a slow start as she chose to be a sole practitioner which, while it gave her the flexibility she needed as a working mother, also required her to be a real generalist in her practice. However, over time she came to specialise in two main areas: criminal and family law.

Her family law practice was primarily in the areas of paternity suits and matrimonial property cases, engaging both her intellectual and evidence gathering skills. She obviously developed an impressive reputation particularly amongst women. Reflecting on her practice in 1993, she could not recall a single male family law client - not, I hasten to add, because of any conscious decision on her part: it was simply what happened.

Recently retired Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ted Thomas, recalls in particular Shirley's practice in family law. He described her to me as "a real fighter - someone who took the law to its outer limits in advancing the cause of women and family in matrimonial cases". She was "a pioneer" - "not someone who sought recognition for what she did. She was a real doer with a vast intellect. She could have made a real contribution at a theoretical level but she chose instead to work with people, for whom she had a real empathy".

That empathy was something which shone through in the other area of her practice, criminal law.

Shirley appeared regularly in the Magistrate's (now District) Courts from the 1960s. Jeremy Pope remembers Shirley's appearances when he was a young, less experienced lawyer, and reflects now that "she really role modelled for the less experienced practitioner how someone with a sense of calling to the law conducts him or herself. Not as seeing it as a path to riches, but rather seeing it as a solemn duty to leave no person unrepresented, no matter the lack of means to pay. Throughout she showed a passion for justice which many others had worn out of them by the grind of over-work. She was unfailingly generous and unfailingly kind … No-one who was in the courts where she appeared – be they counsel, court clerk, defendant or judge – will ever forget her…"

Black Power

One group of people who is likely to remember her better than most is Black Power Gang's Wellington Chapter. Shirley became very well known for her work for the Black Power Gang, a role she clearly valued and enjoyed. Her involvement came about through her law clerk at the time, George Rosenberg, who introduced her to Dennis O'Reilly, and he in turn, introduced the Black Power Gang to her.

I also want to acknowledge the presence of many members of the Black Power Gang present today as a show of respect for Shirely's commitment to them.

Shirley was very successful as the Gang's lawyer. Despite their serious offending from time to time, she seemed to be able to see past that to the individual. At times her role was a reasonably controversial one. In responding to a question about it in an interview, she replied:

"I am not to be congratulated for what I do. I am just grateful that I have discovered these marvelous people. If other people would treat them on the same sort of basis, I think they would find that they were very much rewarded. The trouble is, you see, they expect to be rejected. They expect contempt and hostility and when they get it they fire up immediately … If people could only learn to give everybody the benefit of the doubt to start with, basically, no matter what they look like, there is a human being in there."

Not only did she respect them as individuals, but she clearly had their respect also. This is demonstrated by an incident that was recounted to me when a member of the gang had taken a woman and child hostage. He was armed. The police were called to the scene and they too were armed. He was unable to be persuaded to release the child. The gang's lawyer, Shirley Smith, was called. Showing great courage and a real faith in her client, Shirley walked alone and unarmed into the house. After several minutes she emerged with the baby.

In fact, it is her respect for all people that George Rosenberg recalls. He spent his first five years of practice working with her and now recalls: "her total dedication to clients and endless patience, despite the hopelessness of many of them and their situations." What surprised this young – then radical – lawyer was that she also saw the best in the police and the judges – people he had entered the practice of law believing were "swine by definition"! – a view Shirley managed to change over time.

Shirley Smith's practice was not restricted to the Magistrate's and District Courts. She also worked with Pat Booth on the Arthur Alan Thomascase, applying her formidable energy and analytical skills to all aspects of the case and contributing in a significant way to its successful outcome - something officially recognised by the society formed to fight for Arthur Alan Thomas's release.

And, on a personal level, she brought those same intellectual, analytical and deductive skills to bear when she assisted Mike Bungay in defending her husband - doing the often unseen part of any successful practice of law: the hard but essential detailed analysis of evidence - or lack of evidence -against him. Those who knew her at the time are in no doubt at all that she must share the credit for his successful defence.

Shirley gave up the practice of law in the early 1990s. In 1995 she was voted an honorary life member of the Wellington District Law Society.

I met her a few times in the late 1980s and enjoyed her company enormously. Like all those in the profession who came to know her, one could not fail to be impressed by her passion and by her extraordinary abilities and commitment to the just practice of law.

But the last word on the life of Shirley Smith surely belongs to her. Writing in the Victoria University Law Review in 1993 she concludes: "I have given up my solicitor's certificate because I have so many other things that I must do and put in order before I die which have been neglected during my long preoccupation with the law. I miss my clients. I miss the practice of  law, but perhaps  it is time I  gave  up, because I  doubt  if I could accommodate myself to the changes. I love to research the law in the books but now the library is deserted and the offices rely on computerised databases. I have no computer or fax machine, not even a word processor. What typing I do is still done on my old Imperial 70. The Dickensian old offices of the past are long gone and I find the modern day offices uncongenial. My day is past, but it was a good day."

Shirley Smith was born on 10 October 1916 and died on 29 December 2007. This obituary has been edited from a eulogy presented by Judge Aitken. It was published in the February 2008 edition of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington District Law Society.

Last updated on the 1st March 2016