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Notes from a Foreign Field: The New Zealand High Court Issues Its First “Declaration of Incompatibility”

(We are starting a new series called ‘Notes from a Foreign Field’, focusing on decisions of other constitutional courts, and constitutional controversies in other jurisdictions, written by specialists from those jurisdictions. In the opening post, Max Harris, a New Zealand lawyer and presently Prize Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, writes about a recent, important decision of the New Zealand High Court, which broke new ground in the area of judicial review)

On 24 July 2015, Justice Heath of the New Zealand High Court issued a landmark human rights decision, Taylor v Attorney-General [2015] NZHC 1706. The case is worth reviewing for readers outside of New Zealand. it provides an overview of the human rights landscape of a jurisdiction that is often overlooked, presents a further perspective for global debates on prisoner voting, and is an example of robust judicial reasoning in a constitutional context.

The Taylor case arose out of New Zealand’s Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010, which imposed a blanket ban on prisoners voting in New Zealand elections. The position prior to 2010 had been that prisoners serving a prison term longer than three years were banned from voting. Arthur Taylor, a prisoner, challenged the 2010 Act. He argued that it posed an unreasonable limit on his right to vote, under s 12 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is an early example of a statutory bill of rights. The original draft Bill of Rights empowered judges to strike down legislation, but after public opposition to this, the Act reached a compromise solution. It lists a standard set of rights and freedoms, indicates that rights are subject only to “reasonable limits” that can be “prescribed by law” and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (s 5), but makes clear that legislation cannot be struck down where limits on rights are found to be unreasonable (s 4). The Act allows the Attorney-General to flag up violations of rights at the legislative drafting stage (s 7), and also notes that “[w]herever” legislation “can be given a meaning” consistent with rights, “that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning” (s 6).

The Act was a model for the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998. However, unlike the Human Rights Act, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 does not spell out the remedies available for litigants in the event that a court finds that legislation unreasonably limits rights. In Simpson v Attorney-General [1994] 3 NZLR 667 (Baigent’s case), the New Zealand Court of Appeal found that damages should be available for violations of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. What remained in doubt was whether New Zealand courts could issue a declaration of inconsistency or incompatibility (of the kind explicitly allowed by s 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK), where an Act imposes an unreasonable limit on rights. That was the key issue in the Taylor case, because Arthur Taylor asked the High Court to issue a declaration of inconsistency with respect to New Zealand’s prisoner disenfranchisement legislation.

Let us consider the judgment. Justice Heath points to the fact that interestingly, the Crown had conceded that there was inconsistency between the legislation and the right to vote, and agrees with the Attorney-General’s preliminary opinion that there was an inconsistency. He adds one further reason why the legislation is an unreasonable limit on the right to vote: it arbitrarily focuses on imprisonment, rather than conviction, thereby allowing a person who is sentenced to home detention to retain a right to vote, though that person may be as equally culpable as another person sentenced to imprisonment.

So far, so uncontroversial. The real question in the case, however, was that given the acknowledged inconsistency, whether the Court has jurisdiction to grant a declaration of inconsistency, in light of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and relevant policy concerns.

The first argument made by Crown lawyers was that a declaration could not be issued in a case where there is no dispute over interpretation of legislation. It was said that the main remedy provided by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act is an interpretive one: courts can try to interpret away a possible inconsistency with rights, but cannot issue a declaration saying that legislation is inconsistent with rights. Justice Heath considers this argument and rejects it. He accepts that there are some restrictions on when a declaration can be granted. The New Zealand District Court is a creature of statute and cannot grant any declarations (let alone a declaration of inconsistency), and declaratory relief should not be available in a criminal trial, because a declaration represents civil relief that would be inappropriate in a criminal context. (He cites a Court of Appeal decision that notes the inappropriateness of using civil remedies in a criminal context.) But he suggests that these should be the only restrictions placed, in principle, on the issuing of declarations of inconsistency.

Justice Heath points out that earlier courts had said that judges can, and indeed sometimes must, indicate an inconsistency between legislation and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. He says further that to allow a declaration of inconsistency would not contradict s 4 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – the provision preventing judges from striking down legislation on Bill of Rights grounds. Acknowledging the room for “judicial choice”, Heath J reviews earlier case law where remedies (including damages) for Bill of Rights breaches have been developed. He extracts a general principle that “where there has been a breach of the Bill of Rights there is a need for a Court to fashion public law remedies to respond to the wrong inherent in any breach of a fundamental right”. He concludes that Parliament did not intend to exclude the ability of a court to make a declaration of inconsistency.

Justice Heath feels fortified in this conclusion by the fact that a legislative amendment in 2001 allowed declarations of inconsistency in discrimination cases (heard by the Human Rights Review Tribunal in New Zealand). Through this legislative act, Justice Heath says, “Parliament has signaled that it sees no particular objection to that particular remedy being granted”. It would be odd for Parliament to confer this power on a lower tribunal, notes Justice Heath, and to empower higher courts to review use of this power on appeal, but to remove the right of higher courts to issue declarations of inconsistency. Whether a declaration of inconsistency breaches art 9 of the 1688 Bill of Rights (which protects parliamentary privilege and remains part of New Zealand law) or principles of comity between the legislature and the courts are matters that only affect whether a declaration should be issued in a particular case, according to Heath J, not matters that go to the general jurisdiction of a court to issue a declaration.

Addressing whether a declaration of inconsistency is appropriate in the Taylor case, Heath J considers arguments based in the Bill of Rights 1688 and comity. Heath J states that if courts are able to give reasons why legislation imposes unreasonable limits on rights under s 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, it is hard to see how a declaration would create any greater intrusion on parliamentary privilege or comity. This is a kind of boot-strapping argument: if s 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act is constitutionally legitimate (a proposition Heath J assumes), then a declaration of inconsistency must be similarly legitimate.

Courts should not hold back from issuing declarations out of fear that they might be ignored, says Heath J. The New Zealand judicial oath requires decision-making “without fear or favour”. And the Court is, after all, not seeking to persuade – it is merely stating the law (echoing Justice Marshall’s statement from the US Supreme Court decision in Marbury v Madison (1803) 5 US 137). Heath J disagrees with the comments of an earlier judge in an interlocutory decision in the Taylor case that a court might hesitate to issue a declaration where the Attorney-General has already flagged up a Bill of Rights inconsistency in a s 7 report to Parliament. There is no reason why a court “should not reinforce the Attorney’s report”, notes Heath J. He adds that a court should also be able to disagree with an Attorney-General’s report.

Should the absence of a live controversy between parties prevent a declaration? Heath J points out that there is no limit of this kind for ordinary declarations under the Declaratory Judgments Act 1908 (though he doubts whether a declaration of inconsistency could be granted under that Act). Points of “constitutional importance” should be ventilated, says Heath J: “[t]he importance of the right and the nature of the inconsistency are sufficiently fundamental to demand a remedy”.

In this case, Heath J confirms that a declaration of inconsistency will be granted. The case concerns a central aspect of democracy, the right to vote: “if a declaration were not made in this case, it is difficult to conceive of one in which it would”. Heath J notes that “a formal declaration” is more appropriate than “an observation buried in [a court’s] reasons for judgment”. There is no violation of Art 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 or principles of comity; the comment is on “the consequences of a legislative act”, not the internal workings of Parliament itself. The functions of the Attorney-General’s pre-legislative report and the court are different; the Attorney-General is considering an apparent inconsistency, a court is considering an actual inconsistency. A court’s ruling will also be more accessible. Finally, Heath J says, Parliament’s earlier legislative recognition of declarations in discrimination cases shows a certain amount of approval for the notion of declarations of inconsistency. Heath J notes in passing that there are “powerful arguments” that the earlier limitation on prisoner voting (allowing the vote only for prisoners serving fewer than three years in prison) could be Bill of Rights-compliant. He concludes with the declaration itself, in the following terms:

Section 80(1)(d) of the Electoral Act 1993 (as amended by the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010) is inconsistent with the right to vote affirmed and guaranteed in s 12(a) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and cannot be justified under s 5 of that Act.

This is the first case in New Zealand in which a judge has issued a declaration of inconsistency. (In an earlier Court of Appeal case, R v Poumako [2000] 2 NZLR 695 (CA), one judge, Thomas J, issued a declaration of inconsistency, and reviewed the arguments for declarations in some detail. But he was the sole dissenting judge in this case.) The declaration has not resulted in any legislative reconsideration of the prisoner voting ban, however. It seems that no law change will be forthcoming. The Crown has not appealed the ruling.

What more general points, then, can be drawn from this detailed review of Heath J’s reasoning in Taylor v Attorney-General?

First, there are parts of the judgment at which criticism might be directed. Given Heath J’s emphasis on how distinct the Attorney-General’s s 7 report is from a court’s later review of legislation, it is surprising that he does not undertake a fresh proportionality assessment of the prisoner voting legislation in this case. Perhaps Heath J felt that in a controversial case like this one, and as the first judge ever to issue a declaration of inconsistency, it would be safer simply to affirm the Attorney-General’s earlier reasoning.   However, it would have been helpful for Heath J to offer further reasoning on this point, especially since prisoner voting bans have been contentious in other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Canada. (An earlier interlocutory decision of Brown J did refer to some of these other cases.) As well, Heath J is a little peremptory in some conclusions. He is quick to accept that declarations of inconsistency should not be issued in criminal trials, when there is no legislative reference to this carve-out. And he is not entirely convincing in his claim that declarations of inconsistency do not undermine Art 9 of the Bill of Rights. Heath J might also have made some broader comments about the proper approach to the separation of powers and dialogue under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. Perhaps, however, these are points that might be expected in the judgment of an appellate court. Overall, Heath J’s judgment is admirably careful, considered, and courageous.

Secondly, the effect of the judgment – even if it is not momentous, and only slightly shifts the pre-existing position – is to recalibrate subtly the relationship between the courts and Parliament in New Zealand. New Zealand is a jurisdiction where judges have restricted powers. There is no single codified constitution in New Zealand, just as there is no single codified constitution in the United Kingdom. The generally accepted position is that judges cannot strike down legislation, and parliamentary sovereignty is often invoked. Judges (with some notable exceptions) tend to be deferential towards the executive and the legislature. Against that backdrop, this judgment gives judges slightly greater powers in human rights cases and should cause Parliament to hesitate a little more when passing legislation that might violate human rights. Whether, of course, Parliament actually shows more respect for human rights as a result of this judgment is an empirical question. The early signs are not especially promising: New Zealand Justice Minister Amy Adams, after the judgment was released, said that she was considering the judgment, but there seems to have been no further comment from the Minister since July of this year. Opposition Labour and Green Parties did use the judgment to call for the prisoner voting legislation to be repealed, and this highlights a further benefit of declarations of inconsistency: even if they do not lead to direct political change, they can provide tools for citizens, campaigning groups, and other politicians to criticise legislation.

In the earthquake-prone islands of New Zealand in the South Pacific, this judgment may not have shifted the tectonic plates of constitutional law – but at the very least, Taylor has jolted the constitutional landscape. The case is a significant milestone in the development of the jurisprudence of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and an important reminder of the valuable role that courts can play in clarifying matters of principle – and upholding human rights.

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Filed under Comparative Constitutional Law, Judicial Review, New Zealand