(NZ) Quake law dangerous, lawyers say

Lawyers have a duty to protest about "dangerous and misguided" emergency earthquake legislation which over-rides democratic principles, leading academics say.

Experts fear the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act, rushed through Parliament with unanimous support in response to the 7.1 magnitude quake, disregards the rule of law.

It is a basic tenet of democracy and states that no-one – from private citizens to the Government – is above the law.

Almost 30 academics – from six New Zealand universities, the US and England – have written an open letter calling for a review.

"It represents an extraordinarily broad transfer of law-making power away from Parliament and to the executive branch, with minimal constraints on how that power may be used," the letter says.

Victoria University senior law lecturer Dean Knight said the law breached many "fundamental points" of the constitution and the Law Society should be "seriously considering it".

"We are watching closely to see whether the Law Society's rule of law committee will report against this type of legislation. I hope they condemn it."

Otago University Associate Professor Andrew Geddis, who also signed the letter, said the measures "wiped away over three centuries of quite established constitutional convention".

"Rule of law concerns here are, ministers can't be held accountable through judicial review ... one of the core ways that we make sure that power is being used properly," he said.

"The other problem is that because there is a complete exclusion of liability for harm caused by people operating under this legislation ... the person who suffers harm has to wear it."

Austin Forbes, QC, convener of the rule of law committee, said it was "giving consideration to the significant rule of law concerns that this legislation gives rise to".

Civil Defence Minister John Carter said this week that the Government was contemplating a permanent natural disaster law.

Mr Knight said this was "very wise". "They've just gone too far .. as you do when you are faced with a dramatic situation."

This type of legislation was a "gross abuse". "[It] takes us back to the Muldoon days. We've fought for 20 years to try and stop this type of blank cheque being given to the executive to make and fashion laws. It's just wrong."

Professor Geddis said the Epidemic Preparedness Act, passed to deal with the possibility of a disease outbreak, was a better model.

Mr Carter said the emergency legislation would be part of a review of the response. He said the Government has responded appropriately in the circumstances.

The Government would "absolutely" look at comment from the Law Society.


At its most basic the rule of law says that no-one, from the individual to the state, is above the law.

It safeguards against both dictatorship and anarchy. The authority of the government is only legitimate if it is carried out under laws that are established, adopted and enforced publicly under recognised steps, known as due process. A government is accountable under these laws.

The rule of law protects, preserves and defends the rights and property of individuals. It is one of the three basic principles on which New Zealand law is based. The others are parliamentary sovereignty and the separation of powers.

Under separation of powers, the legislature – our 122 MPs – writes the law, the executive, or government, carries it out and the judiciary scrutinises and interprets it.