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Smith, Shirley Hilda Stanley


Lawyer, human-rights campaigner

This biography, written by Sarah Gaitanos, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

Shirley Smith was a human-rights campaigner and trail-blazing lawyer. As a community activist from the early 1950s she fought for social and political reform, while as a lawyer she spoke for those who had no voice and pursued equal rights for all.


Shirley was born in Kelburn, Wellington on 10 October 1916 to barrister and solicitor David Stanley Smith and his wife, Eva Jane Cumming. Tragedy followed three months later when Eva died during abdominal surgery. David had previously enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force for overseas military service. He entered camp in March 1917, leaving baby Shirley in the care of her maternal grandmother, Emma Cumming. Shirley remained with her grandmother for six years.

Shirley hero-worshipped her father, who affectionately called her his ‘little Red Fed’, a reference to her rebellious personality.1 In 1923 David Smith married former headmistress Margaret (Meta) Elizabeth Gibbs, and took Shirley back into his household. The family was completed in 1924 with the birth of Shirley’s half-brother, Allan Gibson Smith. While Shirley’s beloved grandmother and Cumming relatives were always important to her, she strongly identified with the Smiths, Presbyterian Scots who were single-minded about what they believed to be right.


Having first attended Kelburn Normal School and been home-taught by her step-mother, in 1924 Shirley started at Queen Margaret College in Thorndon. In 1928 her father was appointed a Supreme Court judge and at the end of 1929 the family moved to Auckland, where Shirley attended St Cuthbert’s College for a year. In 1931 she was sent to Nga Tawa Diocesan School, an Anglican boarding school for girls in Marton. Shirley felt like an outsider, but Nga Tawa opened surprising possibilities. Taking part in a mock election as the Communist Party candidate, she discovered both communism and the thrill of public speaking. Her headmistress and parents decided that Shirley should study classics at Oxford University. This became possible with the arrival of a brilliant classics teacher, Annie M. Young, who successfully prepared Shirley for the entrance exam.

Oxford University

Shirley briefly attended Victoria University College in 1935 before sailing for England. On her 19th birthday she entered St Hugh’s College, Oxford, starting the ‘most wonderful transforming’ time of her life. While studying Greats (the classics course at Oxford) gave her an education for life, so did her extra-curricular activities. She developed her aesthetic judgment and a moral philosophy, lost her religious faith and, fired by the civil war in Spain, joined the Communist Party. She travelled in Britain and on the continent during her vacations.

This full life ended when Shirley fell ill with lymph node tuberculosis. She was treated at Dr Rollier’s famous sun clinic at Leysin in the Swiss Alps, returning to Oxford to sit her final exams. Despite her absence from Oxford for most of her last year, Shirley graduated in October 1939 with a BA Oxon Class II Honours. Her MA was conferred in 1942.

War years

Shirley returned home to Wellington in the early months of the Second World War. After further illness, she took a part-time junior lectureship at Victoria University College teaching Greek, Latin and Greek Art. She also became a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, volunteering at Wellington Hospital during weekends and holidays and intending to serve in the Middle East. However when Auckland University College offered her a full-time lectureship in the Classics Department, she accepted and, in May 1942, moved to Auckland.

On 2 June 1944 Shirley married the prominent economist Dr William Ball (Bill) Sutch in Auckland. She kept her own name, setting an example for the next generation of women. Returning to live in Wellington, she was recruited to the new Vocational Guidance Service as Assistant Girls’ Vocational Guidance Officer. A member of the Communist Party,  her cultural and political activities included giving a course on dialectical materialism at its Wellington branch.

Wife and mother

In 1945 Shirley joined Bill in Sydney, where he was working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In November that year, their daughter Margaret Helen Sutch was born. When Sutch’s work took him to London the family moved there, and they went on to New York in 1947 when he was appointed secretary-general of the New Zealand mission to the United Nations.

Law School

Returning to Wellington in 1950, with Helen starting school in the new year, Shirley looked for a new direction. She gave radio broadcasts which challenged conventional attitudes, especially regarding gender roles. Passionate about human rights and equality and appalled by the government’s draconian legislation following the 1951 waterfront dispute, she founded the Human Rights Organisation and co-founded the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties. In 1976 she was made the Council’s first life member.

In 1952 Shirley began studying law at Victoria University College. At the end of her first year she won both the Butterworth Prize for Roman Law and the Mackay Memorial Prize for Criminal Law and the Law of Contracts. She successfully challenged the Law Faculty Club over its exclusion of women from its annual dinners. (Years later she got the Wellington District and New Zealand law societies to admit women to their dinners.) She was elected vice-president of Victoria University College’s Socialist Club and edited Victoria University Law Review. A part-time job as a law clerk for Duncan, Matthews and Taylor gave her practical experience.

When Shirley graduated in 1957 she was capped by her father, now Sir David Smith and Chancellor of the University of New Zealand. When she returned to Victoria in 1958 to teach Roman law and constitutional law, she was the first woman appointed to a law faculty in New Zealand.

Shirley and Bill had by then moved to the new award-winning house they had built on Brooklyn hill. Designed by the Austrian émigré architect Ernst Plischke, it would be her home for nearly five decades.


In 1956 Shirley shifted her political position. No longer a party member, she split with the Communist Party completely when the Soviet Union crushed the people’s uprising in Hungary. Acknowledging her own past mistakes, she wrote to fellow dissidents Max Wilkinson and Elsie Locke about the need to ‘uncover the facts from the mist of myth-making. For … if we do not start from a clear-eyed facing of the actual facts we cannot do or think anything right.’2

Shirley continued to fight for the ideals of socialism, social justice, equality and human rights by making public statements, organising public meetings and lobbying influential people. She campaigned to abolish the death penalty, stop whites-only New Zealand rugby tours to South Africa, improve mental health services, to bring about jury reform, equal pay for women, homosexual law reform and abortion law reform. In the 1960s she was national secretary for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (New Zealand), and she opposed the Vietnam War. She served as long-term honorary solicitor for the Society for Research on Women, the Cook Islands Society, and the Thorndon Trust. In the 1970s she rallied the public to preserve Thorndon’s historic buildings and character from destruction by urban and motorway development. She counted many writers and artists among her friends and mentored many young people, some of whom idolised and adored her.

Sole practice

All this time, Shirley was running her own legal practice, having left the university in 1961 to set up as a barrister and solicitor in downtown Wellington. Her diverse clientele included many people on the margins of society and, particularly in family law, she challenged the law and changed public attitudes. She regularly appeared in the courts, then a male domain. Short in stature, she made her presence felt as much through her warmth and kindness as through her command of language and ability to interpret the law. By the mid-1970s Shirley had built up a busy practice and was regarded as both a pioneer and an icon. Much of her work was pro bono. She said that she never refused a case, believing everyone had the right to justice. In the late 1970s Shirley focused on the work she enjoyed most – criminal law, defending young Māori and Polynesian men. Having previously represented Black Power, in the 1980s she was solicitor for the Mongrel Mob.

Her greatest crisis in these years was not one of her own cases, but her husband’s. In 1974 Sutch was charged with espionage. He was acquitted but the matter was not settled in public opinion. Shirley stood staunchly by him until his death later that year, and continued to defend his reputation publicly throughout her long widowhood.


Shirley retired in 1989, allowing more time to travel overseas. Keenly interested in young people, especially her grandsons, she enjoyed extended family holidays in Taupō, swimming, reading and writing. In the 1990s Shirley added her memoirs to the vast collection of writings she had created over her lifetime; they are held at the Alexander Turnbull Library. 

After a slow decline into dementia, Shirley died in the Malvina Major Retirement Home, Johnsonville, on 29 December 2007, aged 91. She was survived by her daughter and two grandsons.  

Shirley never wished to be defined as a woman lawyer, but she inspired young women entering the profession. Acknowledging also her contribution to a more compassionate New Zealand, in 2008 the New Zealand Law Society’s Women in Law Committee established the annual Shirley Smith Address in her memory.

  1. ‘Shirley Smith’, Directions: New Zealanders Explore the Meaning of Life, Shoal Bay Press, Christchurch, 1995 (interview with Neville Glasgow for National Radio first broadcast 1989), p.187 Back
  2. Shirley Smith to Elsie Locke, 14 April 1957, Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-1609784 Back
How to cite this page:

Sarah Gaitanos. 'Smith, Shirley Hilda Stanley', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6s6/smith-shirley-hilda-stanley (accessed 24 June 2024)