8 Jun 2019

Sarah Gaitanos: Examining the life of Shirley Smith

From Saturday Morning, 9:06 am on 8 June 2019

Shirley Smith spent 40 years breaking down barriers as distinguished lawyer and tireless human rights advocate.

It’s a career Sarah Gaitanos explores in her latest book; Shirley Smith: An Examined Life.

No caption

Photo: Victoria University Press

In the 1970s, Smith represented Black Power, and in the 1980s, the Mongrel Mob.

When she worked for the Mongrel Mob, Smith would sign herself ‘solicitor for Mob’, previously she represented individuals, but the Porirua chapter regarded her as their lawyer.

The gang members were young, their movements new and it was difficult for them to get legal representation, says Gaitanos.

“They didn’t know how to access the law, lawyers would go to the court and be told by their firms, these ones aren’t going to pay, so they didn’t take them on and they pleaded guilty regardless. Shirley’s view always was you take on anyone who asks, but she actually asked people.”

One person she approached was Dana de Melo, who other people didn’t think should be represented because she was part of the transgender community.

“These people who were on the fringe of society, she was a voice for them and she made sure they had a fair defence, a fair trial, and if they were found guilty, they were found guilty but sometimes they weren’t.”

Much of the work she has done isn’t written about in the book – because Gaitanos stuck to the cases that were reported on. In some instances, Smith discreetly paid people’s loans so they were able to keep their house.

As a tribute to Smith, the Black Power performed a haka at her funeral.

Smith didn’t get into law to make money, in fact she didn’t make any.

“It was the principle, she did worry about money, she wanted her practice to work, she wanted to be independent, so it was a constant anxiety for her.”

When Smith started practising law, there wasn’t such a thing as legal aide, and when she represented the gang members, they didn’t pay.     

“You can’t measure how much good she did…she really went the extra mile. The benefits of this flowed through to their children and onto the next generation. I think she always had the children in mind,” says Gaitanos.

“She was a warm and generous person.”

Smith wanted to make a difference in the world and focused on a range of human rights issues.

“Smith tries to combine her legal practice with various activities that aimed at reforming the world,” her father said in 1974.

Her father was a judge and would come home from work when Smith was a teenager to tell her about his cases, explaining them, as well as what was right and wrong.

“She became fascinated then and thought ‘oh, that’s what I’ll be, I’ll be a lawyer.”

She was also in the spotlight for her marriage to eminent economist and public servant Dr W B Sutch, who was arrested and charged with espionage in 1974 after meetings with a Russian diplomat.

Bill Sutch (left) arriving at Wellington Magistrate's Court with wife Shirley Smith and lawyer  Mike Bungay in October 1974.

Bill Sutch (left) arriving at Wellington Magistrate's Court with wife Shirley Smith and lawyer Mike Bungay in October 1974. Photo: NATIONAL LIBRARY / Ref: EP / 1974 / 6745a / 8aF

His arrest broke like a rogue wave over Smith’s life, says Gaitanos.

“The SIS never thought he was a spy, no one thought he was a spy, they watched him, they had files on him, but they actually never had him as a target of surveillance, which is quite different, not until 1974.”

Gaitanos doesn’t believe Smith knew about meetings her husband was having with the Soviets.

Following World War II, Sutch worked in Sydney and then London for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitaion Administration. He was then selected to head the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations.

The couple returned to New Zealand in 1951, when Sutch worked for the Department of Industries and Commerce.

Sutch was supposedly recruited by the Soviets in New York in 1950, says Gaitanos.

“That fact that Shirley didn’t know doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to her life because this was her husband and it was clearly a factor in their decision to come back to New Zealand, whether she knew it or not.”

After a sensational trial he was acquitted by a jury, but the question of his guilt has never been fully settled.

Sarah Gaitanos has previously written several books including one in collaboration with Alan Bollard, Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the bestseller Crisis: One Central Bank Governor and the Global Financial Collapse.