New Zealand Law Society - Grisly roles good fun for leading law academic

Grisly roles good fun for leading law academic

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Referring to Canterbury University's recently-appointed first woman Law Dean Ursula Cheer as a witch is a compliment – portraying scary characters is one of the amateur thespian's favourite roles.

An amateur theatre buff for as long as she can remember – "most lawyers are frustrated actors" - Ursula loves playing witches. 

Ursula Jan (Ursula) Cheer
Entry to law
Graduated LLB(Hons) from Canterbury University in 1982, LLM from Cambridge University and PhD from Canterbury University. First admitted 1983. 
Dean of Law at Canterbury University. 
Speciality area
Media law.
Photo of Ursula Cheer as a witch
Ursula Cheer, witch

"I suppose I have been type-cast but I have a good strong voice and like doing strong female characters…

"And witches are more interesting than beautiful princesses…"

One of her favourites is Natalya, the Bad Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, a character written and adapted by partner and public relations consultant Rob Smith, whom she met through the theatre.

Ursula joined Christchurch's Riccarton Players while at university and is a life member of the popular group.

"My dad suggested I go straight to university from the sixth form but I was too afraid to do that and stayed at school another year."

"He said I should do law but there were no lawyers in the family and because dad suggested it I said no…

"I thought about it for a year and decided to give it a go … I didn't have any highly idealist notions about law … and it took me a while to grow into it…

"I enjoyed university and got in with a good crowd, became involved in lawsoc, edited the student newspaper - it never got into any trouble while I was editor…"

It was the time of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour and students were heavily involved in protests. "I'm not political and didn't know enough about it to go out and protest…"

"I felt uncomfortable from the high some students were getting from protesting … That's not for me…"

As the first woman Law Dean in Canterbury's 142-year history Ursula became the university's second only woman professor in 2012, and has had three legal careers – private practice, the civil service and academia.

"Canterbury University is fantastically stable … It has been criticised over the years for being conventional and conservative, but that has changed largely due to people's thinking from the earthquakes … Things have changed a lot …There is fantastic stability and collegiality at the law school…

"I had six years in practice after I graduated and enjoyed it very much.

"I then went to Wellington, became speech writer for the then Justice Minister Geoffrey Palmer and worked for the law reform division of the Justice Department.

"When Geoffrey became Prime Minister he seconded me back to his office as legal advisor.

"I had a taste for the civil service by then, did my Masters degree at Cambridge University, looked for a job in London and found one in the Lord Chancellor's Department working in the Law Commission.

"I was there from 1987 to 1994, by which time I was sick of English queues and came home…

"I always had an academic career in mind and had stayed in touch with the law faculty. Back then a masters degree was essential for a job in academia…"

Ursula Cheer
Ursula Cheer, Dean of Law

Having worked in the government and seen the process of lawmaking and law reform, Ursula was aware of a committee looking at censorship in New Zealand and the feminist issues around pornography, so made censorship the theme of her masters studies.

"Censorship is an aspect of freedom of expression … By time I came back to New Zealand and a job at Canterbury University, I was teaching torts – part of which is defamation and privacy…"

She soon developed a keen interest in what is now known as media law, working alongside her mentor and friend Professor John Burrows – long regarded as New Zealand's leading academic expert on media law, a mantle Ursula now wears.

Prof Burrows invited her to help him write his book Media Law in New Zealand – first published in 1974.

Recently updated in its 7th edition as Burrows and Cheer Media Law in New Zealand, the invaluable work is compiled almost exclusively now by Ursula.

While she is admitted to the solicitors' roll of the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom as a requirement to work in the civil service there, Ursula doesn't currently hold a New Zealand practising certificate.

"I have had one on and off because I have done a bit of consultancy work, given a bit of advice for lawyers and did a defamation case early on…"

One of her favourite stage roles is in Rosemary's Baby author Ira Levin's controversial play Veronica's Room – described as a spine chilling murder horror mystery – in which she plays three roles.

"It is all unpleasant … Murder and incest … A great challenge…

"I've also done Miss Jean Brody and Truvy Jones in Robert Harling's 1987 play Steel Magnolias – the part played by Dolly Parton in the film…"

High school daughters Alice (17) and Stella (15) have grown up with acting – Alice interested in carrying it on as a career and Stella considering doing law…

"Both are powerful in arts and communication … And have also swum at national level…

"I don't play any musical instruments but always like a good sing … I like classical music, Nina Simone and David Bowie – I saw the Bowie exhibition in Melbourne, he was part of my growing up and his music has never lost its sheen…

"There's a farm cottage we go to regularly at Port Levy on Banks Peninsula and I'm reading an interesting history of the area put together by local people...

"The farm we stay on is the site of murder from years ago – the 1860s - and it's said a man's unrecovered body is buried nearby…

 "I like the British romantic drama Last Tango in Halifax, which has gone slightly barmy in the latest series, but I'm a Luddite and don't get anything through Netflix or anything like that…

"Late Victoria writer George Gissing is one of my favourite authors … Especially New Grub Street, set in the literary and journalistic circles of 1880s London. He wrote social conscience novels and was interested in the position of women in Victorian England."

The family have two Jack Russells - Milo and Maggie - Milo as a companion for now deceased 19-year-old Jack Russell Hattie, and Maggie as a pal for Milo.

But the family's big sporting interest is playing and promoting the mixed team sport Korfball – Dutch basketball.

"Rob and I discovered Korfball at Cambridge and played for London club Mitcham. Korfball is second only to football in popularity in the Netherlands because the whole family can play."

It is a non-contact combination of indoor basketball and netball, and the couple were instrumental in the sport starting in New Zealand, with clubs now in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland.

Partner Rob coaches and referees and runs the sport in New Zealand. Daughters Alice and Stella played in under 19 team championships in Hong Kong.

"It is a minor sport here but we are developing it and it is becoming very popular because it can be played indoor and outdoor, summer and winter.

"I'm quite satisfied being an academic … After the earthquakes a lot of people looked around for jobs they could do if they had to leave Christchurch…

"We decided to stay. I was offered the opportunity to apply for the chief censor position but I didn't really fancy doing censoring, sitting in a dark room looking at violent pornography all day…

"I might look at a government job somewhere…

"I have always been interested in the stars and astronomy and when I was young wanted to be an astronaut…

"Acting would be the other thing but I don't think I'm good enough … I would enjoy acting and know how to do it but maybe I'll stay where I am…"

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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