New Zealand Law Society - "Geeky" classroom activist eyes political challenge

"Geeky" classroom activist eyes political challenge

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Living on the edge of a regional park with a husband, dog, cat, rabbit, six chooks and four kids, part-time Wellington barrister Susanne Ruthven has her eye on another prize.

She wants to become a Member of Parliament on the Green Party list.

Susanne Marie (Susanne) Ruthven
Lower Hutt. 
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Victoria University in 2005. Admitted in 2005. 
Barrister in Harbour Chambers, Wellington. 
Speciality area
Human rights law, international law, public and administrative law, constitutional, environmental, education and privacy law.
Susanne Ruthven
Susanne Ruthven

Twenty seventh on the Green list at the 2014 general election, Susanne stood in Rimutaka, where she got 1,727 votes and the party got 3,154.

In a party whose MPs tend to get in on the party list, Susanne says she intends to stand again in 2017 – "It's great fun…"

"It's certainly a shift from law to politics … But the work I do in public law and constitutional law, and even human rights, is all relevant to becoming an MP.

"Politics is a long game … It took new co-leader James Shaw – who is resonating with the voters - ten years to get into Parliament, so it will probably take the same time for someone like me.

"Law is a great profession and can be used as a springboard into a number of professions … Even if my children don't become lawyers I would still advocate for them to do law because it is such a flexible degree."

With a daughter aged eight, one son aged six, another son aged three and a 15-month old daughter (still breastfeeding), a software engineer husband, a Huntaway heading dog cross called Hunter, Molly the cat, a rabbit called Georgie Porgie Puddin' & Pie, six chickens and a half acre Maungaraki property bordering Belmont Regional Park, Susanne has her hands full.

Having recently joined Wellington's Harbour Chambers after time off for maternity leave and electioneering she balances life and work by working three days a week.

"It's ideal … At any given time our house is messy, loud, busy and full of toys, happiness and laughter, which is just how we like it…

"It's certainly quiet at work where I can finish a conversation without interruptions … But there's a crossover – on my second day in chambers I had to rush my son to emergency after he climbed up a mattress at home, fell and split his head open…"

A specialist in human rights, judicial review and international law, she previously worked alongside noted human rights lawyer Dr Tony Ellis in Blackstone Chambers and was previously a solicitor with the Ministry of Fisheries.

The only lawyer in the family – her mother is in recruitment and her father is a civil engineer - Susanne says she always thought she would go to medical school and become a doctor.

"It was only when my sister reminded me I didn't like the sight of blood I didn't go to med school…

"If I went to med school now I would have looked at being a paediatrician … I'm not so squeamish about blood now, with four children you can't be…

"If you don't go to med school as a sixth or seventh former, naturally you tend to go to law school…

"Which was ideal for me … When I was ten at primary school I remember arguing that I wanted to take carpentry class and being told by Dad I could not take it…

"I argued with him about the rights of women and we should be able to do the same as men can do, it should not make any difference on gender…

"I won the argument but it was a moot point because I ended up going to St Oran's College where they didn't do carpentry at all…

"At St Oran's I ran a petition against a plan to double the size of classes and reshuffle who was in which class…

"We all wanted to stay where we were assigned … I got all but two of the students to sign up and we ended up staying in our original classes.

"So I was a social activist from an early age and carried that on to university … I read the Taito case in my second year and that was when I realised I wanted to work in human rights law and work with Tony Ellis."

[In R v Taito [2002] 3 NZLR 577, 6 HRNZ 539 (Privy Council 2002) Dr Tony Ellis mounted a successful challenge to the way the Court of Appeal had conducted criminal appeals since 1990, which effectively meant about 1,500 legal aid appeals in the Court of Appeal were unlawful]

"I don't have much spare time … I'm heavily involved in the community … the local play centre, various women's groups and community organisations.

"I'm geeky, I watch The Nation and for light relief Backbenchers on TV … that's terrible, I'm going to look like the world's geekiest lawyer.

"I'm a fan of Grey's Anatomy, don't like legal dramas but enjoyed Boston Legal.

"I started reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate … and enjoy old school books…

"I've just finished Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre - I really do sound quite geeky – I like the way old books are written … Dickens a favourite… They are timeless.

"The last movie I saw was Inside Out (a kid's animation about Riley, who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco). The last non-children film was Noble – at the Petone Lighthouse Cinema – about Irish children's rights campaigner Christina Noble…

"Colin Firth is great in Pride & Prejudice … That would be my favourite and it's also also one of my daughter's favourites.

"I'm sadly lacking in musical interests. I played the flute in college, probably quite poorly…

"I wanted to play the saxophone but that was too expensive to hire and lessons were outside school…

"I'm stuck in the generation of Dire Straits and U2 - I am very old school … I'd like to put 'opera star' to my name, which would make my son happy because one of his favourites is Phantom of the Opera … and it is played a lot at our house…"

For holidays the family join Nelson-based mother-in-law at Ruby Bay.

"I enjoy advocacy and will be doing some court work … I'm one of the world's talkers…

"I find differences of opinion intriguing … some people find it as conflict and shy away from it, but I am the opposite…"I like to understand why someone holds a view and get to know their perspective before I give them mine…"

Jock Anderson has been writing and commenting on New Zealand lawyers and New Zealand's courts for most of his career in journalism. Contact Jock at

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