By Frank Neil
Moving from being a lawyer in a large commercial law firm straight onto the bench was “exceedingly terrifying, as you can imagine,” says Supreme Court Judge, Dame Susan Glazebrook.
Justice Glazebrook joined the High Court bench in June 2000, serving as a temporary judge until her permanent appointment to that Court in December that same year.
One reason it was terrifying was that until then, the only criminal court work she had ever done was a plea of mitigation for one of her firm’s clients.
She had, however, completed a significant work in the criminal law area with her PhD thesis which explored the modernisation of criminal law in France during the French revolution.
“Strangely, despite the enlightenment nature of the French criminal code, it didn’t bear much relationship to the New Zealand criminal code.”
Another reason was that she had not been a litigation lawyer, although she had done a small amount of tax litigation.
“I wasn’t really au fait with the procedure, so it was totally terrifying and that continued so for some time.
“I have to say, though, that the other judges were incredibly supportive, especially Justice Hugh Williams, who was there at any second to answer questions – stupid or not.”
Justice Peter Salmon was another of the judges who was very supportive. The High Court had a mentoring system. “Peter Salmon was my official mentor and he was also very helpful,” Justice Glazebrook says.
After nearly two years on the High Court bench, Justice Glazebrook was appointed to the Court of Appeal in May 2002 and then to the Supreme Court in August 2012.
“I’ve enjoyed all of the courts I have been on,” she says.
“I think the Supreme Court is very, very interesting intellectually and you are obviously looking at the cases with large and important issues.
“It is nice to be able to think very carefully and fully about every single case you are involved in. That’s not to say that you took anything lightly in the Court of Appeal, but just the sheer volume meant that there wasn’t the time to give the sort of attention that you are able to in the Supreme Court.
“The Court of Appeal was very interesting because you do have that volume and so you do get to see an incredibly wide variety of cases, and I’m very pleased that I spent as much time as I did there.
“I think that in some ways, though, the High Court is probably the best job, because you get to look at appeals but also you get to see real people in real trials and real situations. So I think it has a very good variety.”
Not knowing what her future career might be, Justice Glazebrook completed two years at Waikato University after leaving school.
After those two years, she still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do and was considering career options.
“I knew I didn’t want to teach, although I did two years as a junior lecturer in history before I went over to France to do the doctorate.
“But I was really looking for something that had a career path to it. I remember going to a career advisory service and I did a whole pile of tests. At the end of the tests, they said I could do anything I wanted, but they really didn’t think I should become a car mechanic. As I wasn’t thinking of becoming a car mechanic, I was perfectly happy with that advice.
“I think I decided on law rather than medicine because medicine would have involved me doing a lot of catch-up in science, because I hadn’t done science for a while. I have no idea if I’d have been accepted into medicine anyway.”
By this time Justice Glazebrook had moved to Auckland University for her final year of a BA in history. “I didn’t have much left to do for my BA, so I started law at the same time.
“Once I started law, I found it very interesting. I liked the fact – which is probably not actually right – that it was, or to me it seemed, quite logical and especially quite textually based as well. So you were analysing cases and coming up with theories in a logical manner.
“Now looking back, that seems a fairly naïve view in terms of the law, but that’s what I liked about it.”
After graduating from Auckland University with an MA (1st Class Hons) and an LLB (Hons) Justice Glazebrook then gained a DPhil in French legal history from Oxford University and later a DipBus (Finance).
Although teaching was not a career path she wished to follow, education has a high priority for her.
“I am a great believer in education for education’s sake and following your interests, certainly in one’s legal career,” she says.
“When I’m conducting ceremonies when people are admitted to the bar, I always say that they have to make sure they keep a broad outlook and follow their interests, because, if for nothing else, their clients are people too. It gives them at least something else in common with their clients.
“The law, even commercial law, is about people and about business and about how things work.”
“So having a broad understanding – both broadly in the law and broadly in general – I think does help you understand the motivations of people. It also, I think, enriches your understanding of the law, because the law doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a society. If you don’t understand the society, because you don’t take part in it, you don’t have much chance of understanding the law.”
That, at least, is “justification for doing things that I like,” she says.
After completing her doctorate, Justice Glazebrook returned to New Zealand and worked for Simpson Grierson, where she specialised in tax and finance law.
“I always tell people that it was totally logical I went into tax law, because everything I had done before inexorably led to taxation.
“In Simpson Grierson at that stage they did a rotation programme, so I did about six months in litigation and then about three or four months in conveyancing.
“I really liked litigation, but I decided that I wanted to make the deals rather than litigate about them later. I also decided that, although litigation was very exciting, it was also very up and down, and so I thought that commercial law would be better.
“I actually enjoyed conveyancing a lot. I must have had very bad luck because just about every deal that I dealt with during my time turned out to be exceedingly unusual and very, very difficult.”
She decided on tax law, she says, because it is very statute and word-based.
“I had enjoyed mathematics at school and when I was doing Professionals I really enjoyed the accounting side of it, to my surprise.
“The other nice thing about tax law was that it allowed you to put your nose into a whole lot of commercial deals without having to be involved in the sort of leg work of putting agreements together.
“I went into tax law at a very good time, because of the major reforms of tax law – especially accruals. I ended up writing a book on that with Robin Oliver” (The New Zealand Accrual Régime – A Practical Guide (1989)).
“From there, I got into a bit of law reform and also education, done through the Tax Education Office. So although I said I went into law because I didn’t want to teach, in fact I had quite a lot to do with education through the Tax Education Office and also I was chair, until I came to the Supreme Court, of the Institute of Judicial Studies, which is the education arm of the judiciary.”
By the time she joined the bench, Justice Glazebrook had become a partner of Simpson Grierson, and was widely acknowledged for her expertise in tax law.
Her wide service in governance and advisory roles included being President of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association, an organisation of business lawyers in the region, in 1998.
This profile was first published in LawTalk 847, 1 August 2014, page 10.