Process underway to appoint next Chief Justice of New Zealand

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has commenced the process to appoint New Zealand’s next Chief Justice to replace Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, who retires in March 2019.  

Under s 100(2) of the Senior Courts Act 2016 the Governor-General appoints the Chief Justice, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.  

While there is no statutory process for this appointment, the Prime Minister has put in place a process outlined below to assist her in this role. 

The process is led by the Solicitor-General Una Jagose QC in order to determine suitable candidates for consideration against agreed criteria, listed below, and then produce a shortlist for submission to the Prime Minister.  

Jacinda Ardern will then consult the outgoing Chief Justice before making her recommendation to Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy. 

“Given the significance of the role of Chief Justice in New Zealand’s constitutional order, it is important that the appointment process is conducted against transparent criteria,” Jacinda Ardern said.  

“This is also important because this is the first ever appointment of the head of New Zealand’s final appellate court.” 

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias was appointed in 1999. At that time the Privy Council was at the apex of New Zealand’s court structure. That changed in 2004, when the Supreme Court was formed. The legislation establishing the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court Act 2003, brought to an end appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council from decisions of New Zealand courts. 

The appointment process is expected to be completed by the end of 2018. If it is not completed by the time the present Chief Justice retires the Senior Courts Act provides that the most senior available Judge of the Supreme Court is authorised to act as Chief Justice. 

Editors’ note:  

Dame Sian Elias was appointed the Chief Justice in 1999 on the retirement of Sir Thomas Eichelbaum. She is due to retire on 12 March 2019.

The appointment of the new Chief Justice will be the first appointment made as head of the Supreme Court. 

Summary of process for appointment of Chief Justice

  • The Chief Justice is appointed by the Governor-General, on recommendation of the Prime Minister.
  • Criteria for appointment are outlined below. They were developed by the Solicitor-General, modelled on the criteria for the appointment of the Lord Chief Justice of the United Kingdom and agreed by the Prime Minister.
  • The Solicitor-General will consult, on a confidential basis, with a range of people experienced in the law as to who should be considered against the criteria for appointment. 
  • The Solicitor-General will form a panel to review the resulting longlist, and to produce a shortlist according to the criteria. 
  • The shortlist will be provided to the Prime Minister for her to consider.  
  • The Prime Minister, after conducting soundings with Ministerial colleagues, will determine whether she accepts the shortlist. 
  • If so, the Solicitor-General will confirm those shortlisted candidates’ willingness to be appointed and confirm with candidates that there are no conflict issues or other matters that would render them unable to accept appointment. 
  • The Prime Minister will consult with the outgoing Chief Justice. 
  • The Prime Minister will then make her recommendation for appointment to the Governor-General. 

Criteria for appointment to the role of Chief Justice 

The Chief Justice must be an outstanding judge and leader who demonstrates the following competencies.  

An outstanding judge:

  • Highest intellectual and legal ability.
  • Recognised for having, or as having the ability to develop, the skills which mark an outstanding appellate judge.
  • Ability to hear the most complex and high profile cases of all types
  • An understanding of the diversity of the communities, an insight into their differing requirements and an appreciation of the impact of law on society.  

With outstanding leadership skills:

  • Have, or have the ability to develop, mana within, and the confidence of, the judiciary and the legal profession, and the ability to develop the same in the wider public sphere.
  • The long term vision, strategic thinking and ability to inspire others required to lead the judiciary and to maintain its standing and attraction.
  • The ability to lead and inspire the modernisation of the administration of justice.
  • The willingness and ability to delegate.
  • Visibility to the wider judiciary and the public.

With an excellent understanding of and ability to work within the environment in which the administration of justice operates, including:

  • A deep appreciation and understanding of constitutional principle, including an understanding of the role of the Treaty of Waitangi in the law of New Zealand.
  • The ability to engage fully and to deal effectively with members of the Executive, Parliament, the media and professional and other bodies as set out above.
  • The ability to work collaboratively and collegiately with the other Heads of Bench, and to provide overall guidance to the wider judiciary.

Personal qualities

  • Ability to work courteously in and out of Court, respecting the views of others.
  • Superior written and oral communication skills.
  • Resilience, stamina and firmness of purpose under pressure.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Patience and the ability to listen.
  • Decisiveness.