Scoop Review of Books

Woman in Law

Book Review
Shirley Smith: an examined life
by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press, $40). 464 pages.
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

ss-cover-001As the years pass, I have become less interested in reading fiction. Why bother to read made-up stories when the actions of real people are so fascinating and unpredictable? This new biography of Shirley Smith (1916-2007) is an example of an unusual life, skilfully narrated by Sarah Gaitanos.

Shirley Smith was the only daughter of a prominent Wellington lawyer. After studying at Oxford, she later became a pioneering woman lawyer in what was then a male-dominated profession. It seems a simple heroic story, but there are several unexpected twists. Although she showed an early interest in studying law, this was vetoed by her father, who felt that it was no profession for a woman. Instead she studied classics at Oxford in the late 1930s. Her social conscience was aroused by the gathering political storms in Europe, and she joined the Communist Party. The atmosphere of the times is nicely evoked by the recent movie, “Red Joan”. In later years Shirley confided that she was so thankful that she was at Oxford rather than Cambridge, where she might have been recruited as a potential spy.

Returning to New Zealand soon after the outbreak of war, she joined the Classics department at Victoria University College, then moved to a similar position at Auckland  where she taught Latin. It was during this period that she met and subsequently married Bill Sutch, a brilliant but erratic economist and left-wing intellectual. Shirley insisted on retaining her own name rather than becoming Mrs Sutch – almost unheard of at the time, especially once she had a baby. When she returned to Wellington to join Bill, she started attending weekly meetings of the Wellington Central branch of the Communist Party, and came to the notice of the Special Branch of the NZ Police (forerunner of the SIS). A report on her activities noted that “SS is evidently well versed in the doctrine of Communism and she gave a lecture on the Fundamentals of Dialectical Materialism which was too advanced for most of the members present”.


Identity photo of Shirley Smith attached to her Special Branch file. There is no explanation of how this photo was obtained.

Identity photo of Shirley Smith attached to her Special Branch file. There is no explanation of how this photo was obtained.

Shirley accompanied Bill Sutch on a range of overseas postings in the late 1940s, including a period in New York when he was New Zealand representative at the United Nations. When the couple returned to New Zealand in 1951, Shirley decided that she really wanted to be a lawyer, so she quietly enrolled at Victoria and completed a law degree and professional qualifications. By then she was 40, and she decided to set up an independent law practice which she ran for the next 30 years. At that time it was almost unknown for a woman to appear in court, but she was prepared to be a pioneer. Her practice gradually grew, but a large proportion of her court work was defending social outcasts charged with petty crime. In those days there was no legal aid, and many of her clients would not otherwise have been represented by a lawyer She did not charge those who could not afford to pay, as it was her way of putting her feelings about social justice into practice. She never made much money from her legal work, and at one stage she was investigated by the Inland Revenue Department, who doubted that a lawyer could not run at a profit.

As soon as she returned to New Zealand, Shirley joined and was actively involved in a wide range of groups concerned with social activism and human rights, and acted for them in administrative positions or as honorary solicitor. Throughout her career, Shirley worked incredibly hard, regularly returning to her office in the evening until after midnight. She remained under surveillance:

“Her description is already on record in Special Branch but in addition it could be stated that she now wears horn-rimmed glasses. Her hair nearly always bears a scraggy appearance. She has a rapid and crisp manner of speech but is nevertheless quite a good clear speaker.”

Another comment was, “Perhaps another indication as to the subject’s political outlook is the fact that she is an agnostic”.

Like many other communist sympathisers, Shirley was shocked by the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. When Bill Sutch was a leading contender for the position of Secretary of Industries and Commerce in 1957, she was concerned that her known associations might prejudice his chances. She arranged an interview with Brigadier Gilbert, then head of the Special Branch, to assure him that she no longer had any links with the Communist Party.

Although she and Bill led largely separate lives, they both held similar views on social issues, and supported many of the same causes. They both made submissions to the 1970 Royal Commission on Social Policy. Shirley recalled that she had to hold her tongue when Bill expounded ideas that were originally hers “as if they were hitherto unthought by anyone. When first I told him of them, he thought that they were too way out. I have to tell myself that the only thing that matters is the ideas”.

Bill Sutch’s arrest for spying in 1974 came as a terrible shock for Shirley – described by the author as like a rogue wave that crashed over her life. The events of this period are described in detail in chapters 20-22. Shirley did not believe the charges were true, and organized Bill’s defence. It was a terrible year for her as Bill was already ill and subsequently died of cancer. Although he was acquitted, the spying accusations cast a cloud over the rest of her life.

She continued her legal work, but after 1978 she decided to concentrate on criminal work. There is a fascinating account of her work representing the “Taita boys”, mainly young Maori and Polynesian men who were unemployed. She later acted for gang members, including the Mongrel Mob. This section reflects the depth of research undertaken by Sarah Gaitanos as she managed to track down and interview a diverse range of Shirley’s legal clients, including gang members.


Shirley Smith with Mongrel Mob members outside the Wellington Court in 1980. She represented 15 gang members charged with unlawful assembly

Shirley Smith with Mongrel Mob members outside the Wellington Court in 1980. She represented 15 gang members charged with unlawful assembly

This book is a fascinating biography, but it is also an important contribution to aspects of New Zealand’s social history in the mid-20th century. Shirley Smith was a compulsive letter-writer and diarist, and it seems that almost every piece of paper that entered the Smith-Sutch household was retained. Sarah Gaitanos has been able to mine the extensive Shirley Smith papers, now held in the Alexander Turnbull library to give a full account of her life. Unfortunately she did not have access to the corresponding Bill Sutch papers, and he emerges, through Shirley’s eyes, as a rather elusive and sometimes menacing figure. I can’t help feeling that some of what Shirley wrote about her husband may have  been written in exasperation, masking the deeper feelings she had for him. It also emphasizes that a biography of Bill Sutch is long-overdue, and more than 40 years after his death it should be possible to write about his undoubted contribution to New Zealand’s intellectual life without the tarnish of his last years.

Shirley Smith pioneered the way for women to work in the legal system in New Zealand, and she fought for a variety of causes, most of which are now accepted. High profile judicial appointments such as Dame Sian Elias and Dame Sylvia Cartwright are from a later generation, but Shirley would have been pleased that they are able to tread in her footsteps. Sarah Gaitanos has done a great job ensuring that Shirley’s legacy is remembered.