Borrowdale challenge to legality of lockdown

It is widely accepted, by parliamentary parties and the public, that the lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 was necessary. The legality of the lockdown is more contentious.

The Government could have passed emergency laws to ensure the lockdown was legal, they would have had near unanimous support in Parliament for that. But the lockdown measures should have been legal, and it is important to find out whether proper legal processes were followed.

There have already been legal challenges to the lockdown. Because of the incompetence of the lockdown one was doomed to failure – see Court of Appeal rejects habeas corpus lockdown arguments but “questions needed answers” and Nottingham, McKinney named as habeas corpus lockdown litigants.

Nottingham and McKinney said they would try a judicial review as suggested as the appropriate legal approach by both the High Court and Court of Appeal, but they are unlikely to get much support, and going by their legal records they are unlikely to get much right.

Andrew Borrowdale, having a much stronger legal background, also challenged the lockdown via a judicial review – A better looking challenge of Covid lockdown legality.

Law professor Andrew Geddis summarisedthe arguments in support of and against the Government position on the legality of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions – More from Geddis on Covid lockdown legality.

Barry Soper has reported that Borrowdale’s judicial review is due to be heard in court ‘later next month (July), and there are some legal heavyweights getting involved – Legal groups join judicial review into police’s lockdown powers

Questions have been raised as to whether director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield had the legal authority under the Public Health Act to effectively shut the country down and to order people to stay at home unless they had good reason for being out.

Crown Law advice – leaked during the lockdown to Newstalk ZB – suggested Bloomfield did not have the required authority, which would throw into question all the arrests made during it.

The same advice was used by the former Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement to warn his district commanders about the thin ice they were on when it came to making orders in the name of Covid-19.

A judicial review that will consider the legality of the level 3 and 4 lockdowns has been given significant legal grunt.

The court last week heard from the Auckland District Law Council and the Criminal Bar Association, which wanted to become involved in the case.

A judge also wanted to give the Law Society the opportunity to become involved and gave them until today to declare its intention, which the society has now done, but their role as intervenor is neutral and independent of the parties to the case.

Law professor Andrew Geddis said the case “is very much a serious one in terms of raising issues that the legal world think are both genuinely uncertain and important.”

Geddis says Borrowdale was raising concerns in a proper fashion, unlike another private case taken by two men which failed, after they appealed the High Court finding.

President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Stephen Kos, said at the time that extraordinarily complex questions needed answers. He referred to an article academics Geddis and Claudia Geiringer wrote and a report of Parliament’s regulations review committee looking at government powers in emergencies, which he said was “hardly approving”.

Geddis said the intervention of the three legal bodies showed they were keen on the legality being properly tested in court.

He said if the judicial review finds the lockdown rules were legally invalid it would have implications for anyone charged with breaching the rules.

It is important that the legality of the lockdown is cleared up, for those who have been charged with breaching the rules, but also in case similar action needs to be taken in the future.

The initial actions were treated with urgency by the courts as we were still in lockdown when they were initiated, but now we are out of lockdown time can be taken to prepare properly for the case. Going to trial next month is still quite fast compared to normal court timing.

More from Barry Soper on this:  Legality of lockdown could come back to bite PM

It’s easy to say that who cares? The lock down had the desired result, we’re Covid free at the moment. That’s certainly the sentiment expressed, in much more vile terms, by the keyboard warriors when I ran stories last month about the legality of the lock down.

Of course all the warriors ignored the obvious dangers of a country being ruled by fear rather than the rule of law.

Borrowdale knows a lot about the law because he used to draft them at Parliament and he doesn’t have a nefarious agenda, he is simply uncomfortable like the rest of us should be that the most dramatic action taken against a population in a century may not have had the law behind it.

He also covers political ground but whether it affects public views will depend on the outcome of the court case. If the judgment is contentious any of the parties involved  could appeal so it could end up taking quite a while.

Borrowdale applied to bypass the High Court and to jump straight to the Court of Appeal to reduced the number of possible legal steps, but he failed with that : BORROWDALE v DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF HEALTH [2020] NZCA 156 [8 May 2020]

Mr Borrowdale has issued a proceeding for judicial review against the Director-General of Health in the High Court at Wellington. He alleges three lockdown orders made by the Director-General are ultra vires. That is, he says they exceed the powers vested in medical officers of health to make quarantine, isolation, non-association and closure orders under s 70 of the Health Act 1956. He alleges the orders are unlawful, ineffective and should be quashed by the High Court.

Mr Borrowdale applied for removal of the proceeding from the High Court and its transfer to this Court, under s 59 of the Senior Courts Act 2016.

I am not persuaded, in these circumstances, that the proceeding is unlikely to be determined urgently if heard first in the High Court. Mr Borrowdale’s submission as to his finite resources at least anticipates there may need to be one appeal (presumably from this Court to the Supreme Court). Any appeal inevitably raises the prospect of protraction and added cost.

But, as in Fitzgerald v Muldoon, what matters most is that a court of competent jurisdiction makes a fully considered decision on the evidence and the law. That decision will either invalidate or uphold the Director-General’s orders. If the former, the government then has two choices: appeal or seek assistance from the House. If the latter, Mr Borrowdale also has two, but rather different, choices.

The question this application begs is whether this Court should now limit the available judicial steps to two (Court of Appeal, and perhaps Supreme Court) rather than three (High Court, Court of Appeal and perhaps Supreme Court).

And behind that lies another question, which is whether we should thereby deny parties’ ordinary constitutional entitlement to a first appeal as of right (any appeal to the Supreme Court being by leave only). While leave might be anticipated, that is still a step this Court should be reluctant to take, especially where the issues are ones of such fundamental importance as these.

So it will inmitially be heard in the High Court in late July.

More from Geddis on Covid lockdown legality

Law professor Andrew Geddis summarises the arguments in support of and against the Government position on the legality of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, which are being tested in a judicial review by Andrew Borrowdale – see the latest on this in Borrowdale application to transfer judicial review to Court of Appeal declined.

Pundit:  The Lockdown And The Law – Where Are We Now?

Last week saw an application for judicial review filed in the High Court to challenge the legality of the level 4 and 3 lockdown rules. In essence, this challenge argues that various Health Act notices are “ultra vires”; that is, they purported to impose restrictions that went further than Parliament had authorised through legislation.

The government’s position

In a speech on Friday afternoon – and how very dare he interfere with my Zoom drinking time! – the Attorney-General, David Parker, outlined at some length why he and Crown lawyers are and were satisfied with the lockdown’s legal basis. Let me go on the record as noting that this is an entirely respectable legal position to take. It has been ably echoed by Auckland Law School’s Edward Willis, in an unfortunately snapped twitter thread (part one herepart two there).

As he notes (and any errors in paraphrasing are mine alone):

  • Ashley Bloomfield, as Director General of Health, could only issue such orders if the Minister authorises him to; or there is an epidemic, or there is a state of emergency;
  • The actions then taken can be made to fit the statutory language – after all, Ashley Bloomfield’s notices did in fact “require persons … to be isolated [or] quarantined … as he sees fit”;
  • They comply with the important purpose of granting the power, which is to “prevent[] the outbreak or spread of any infectious disease”;
  • The power in s70 to quarantine or isolate “persons” may be contrasted to the powers in Part 3A of the Health Act, which allow for quarantining or isolating “individuals”;
  • And there’s a general principle of statutory interpretation that says “An enactment applies to circumstances as they arise” – which is where the context of a never-before experienced disease with the potential to kill thousands of people enters into the picture!

As such, on this reading it was entirely proper for the government to conclude there was the necessary legal authority to tackle COVID-19 as was done. I’ve already noted that this is an entirely reasonable view to take. And it very well may be that the High Court agrees with it in the upcoming judicial review proceedings.

The counter-argument

However, there is a “but”. As Prof Claudia Geiringer and I pointed out a couple of weeks ago now, the government’s reading of the Health Act provisions is not the only available one. Without going over too much old ground, there are some questions regarding the government’s position:

  • Did Parliament really intend that a one sentence power to “isolate or quarantine” persons would confer on a single public health officer an open-ended ability to confine the entire country to their homes “as he [sic] sees fit”?;
  • If so, wouldn’t that broad power render entirely redundant the separate power in s70(1)(i) to require people to remain in the place where they are isolated or quarantined, but only until tested or treated?;
  • And, the power to “require” persons to isolate or quarantine comes with no obligation to issue a public notice, as compared with s70(1)(m) power to issue an “order” shutting down certain public places – perhaps suggesting that it wasn’t really intended to have the same widespread public application;
  • And, while statutes must be read in the circumstances in which they arise, they also must be read in a way that requires clear and certain language when overriding individual rights. Or, as Whata J put it in a High Court decision considering the exercise of powers under another piece of emergency legislation; “I think it can be fairly said that the wider the power and the more drastic the interference [in rights the common law stridently seeks to protect from unlawful interference], the more careful the Court will be to scrutinise the exercise of that power to ensure that it conforms with its strict statutory origin.”

And so, on this interpretation, the Health Act simply wasn’t meant to empower a medical officer of health (like Ashley Bloomfield) to issue the sort of blanket notices that he did. In fact, he couldn’t issue public “notices” to quarantine or isolate at all; instead, all he may do is individually “require” those persons with (or reasonably suspected to have) COVID-19 to keep away from other people – as well as to stay in their residences until tested and/or treated for the disease in question.

What might the court decide to do?

I hope it is clear that there is a legitimate debate over the proper understanding of an over sixty-year-old piece of legislation that is written in a somewhat ambiguous way. To illustrate but one difficulty with doing so – when enacted in 1956, the powers conferred by s 70 could only be exercised by individual medical officers of health within their particular health districts.

As such, when conferring their power to isolate and quarantine, Parliament couldn’t have intended it to cover the entire country. What, then, does it mean when the Director General of Health was authorised to “exercise those functions [of a medical officer of health] in any part of New Zealand”? Anyone proclaiming with certainty that they know the “right answer” to such questions probably hasn’t thought about them enough.

And so, predicting what the High Court will eventually do is a mug’s game.

Possible outcomes

Assuming that we are in level 2 by the time it hears the case (invoke whatever primitive superstition you choose at this point), the High Court might try to duck the issue altogether by declaring it “moot”. In other words, as the Health Act notices establishing level 4 and 3 restrictions will have been revoked, they no longer affect the person seeking review and so there’s no longer a dispute for the court to resolve.

A second potential outcome is that the court agrees with the government’s interpretation of the Health Act and finds that the Director General of Health had the delegated power to issue the notices that he did. In which case, there is no question about their lawfulness (on these grounds, anyway), and the system has worked like it should.

Alternatively, the court may find that the government’s favoured interpretation of the Health Act was wrong, and that actually the Director General didn’t have the power to issue the notices (or, issue them in the way that he did). In which case, the Director General will have acted unlawfully.

If that’s the case there are several more possibilities.

It might do nothing – simply noting in its reasoning that the government’s preferred reading of the legislation is incorrect.

More likely, it might issue a declaration as to the orders’ unlawful status, formally noting this legal fact.

Or, it might go further and quash the notices, declaring them to be null-and-void and so all actions taken in relation to them of no effect. The chances of that last order, I suspect, are next to none.

The last option could open up the possibility of a lot of claims against the Government.

As Geddis says, it would be unfortunate if this is left undecided by the Court. While it may not be needed any more (for now) it could easily be needed again in the future, possibly the near future.

Leaked documents “not considered advice of Crown Law” but new law proposed anyway

Claims continue that leaked Crown Law documents suggested that level 4 lockdown restrictions were not legally enforceable (at least before a new health notice was issued in early April) but in response Attorney-General David Parker has said the document was a draft – and “not the considered advice of Crown Law” and “there was no gap in enforcement powers.”

However Parker is going to introduce new law next week to “ensure that controls on gatherings of people and physical distancing are still enforceable”. That may be an aimed at preempting a judicial review that is pending in the High Court that seeks to challenge the legality of the lockdown restrictions – see A better looking challenge of Covid lockdown legality.

NZ Herald:  Leaked Crown Law documents question legal force of alert level 4 rules

The Crown Law documents seen by Newstalk ZB say the police powers were severely limited under the first directive of director general of health Ashley Bloomfield.

That was amended anyway in early May.

However Parker insisted in a statement that the documents were not the “considered advice” of Crown Law:

“Recent speculation that the Government’s legal advice had thrown doubt on the police enforcement powers under Level 4 is wrong,” he said.

“That speculation is based on draft views provided to agencies for feedback. That was not the considered advice of Crown Law, which was that there was no gap in enforcement powers.”

Shown the Crown Law documents, University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said the restrictions wouldn’t allow the police to stop people from moving about and doing virtually anything, like surfing, if they weren’t congregating.

But Andrew Geddis:

Shown the Crown Law documents, University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said the restrictions wouldn’t allow the police to stop people from moving about and doing virtually anything, like surfing, if they weren’t congregating.

So this meant the full range of level 4 announced restrictions actually couldn’t be enforced by the police.

“The police powers under other legislation (especially the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act) is really limited – basically, they can only be used against people who have/are suspected of having COVID-19,” Professor Geddis said.

But the Police:

In a statement released tonight a police spokesman said officers did act lawfully.

“We sought legal advice, which also took into account advice from Crown Law, in relation to the initial Health Notice (25 March). On the basis of this advice, we were able to issue appropriate operational guidance to enable our people to act lawfully in circumstances.”

Ten days after the level 4 lockdown started Bloomfield issued a second directive, again under the Health Act. It effectively told everyone to stay in their houses, unless they were on essential business.

The police then issued their own guidelines on how they could enforce it.

“The key point being, between March 24 and April 3 much of the “Lockdown rules” actually had no enforceability in law – which is what Crown Law is saying, and which is why the new notice had to be issued,” Professor Geddis said.

So the problem was then rectified, maybe, (subject to the judicial review).

Graeme Edgler also seems to have had doubts about legality but thought the actions sensible.

Despite Police and Attorney-General claims that restrictions were legal the law is going to be changed anyway. From the Beehive:

Covid-19 response: New legal framework as move to Alert Level 2 considered

A new law providing a legal framework for Covid-19 Alert Level 2 will be introduced and debated next week.

“The changes will ensure that controls on gatherings of people and physical distancing are still enforceable,” Attorney-General David Parker said.

Enforceability to date has relied on the Epidemic Notice, the Health Act and the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act.

There will be fewer restrictions under Alert Level 2 but those remaining still need to be enforceable. We don’t want these narrower controls to rely on a National State of Emergency.

“I would reiterate what the Prime Minister has said: There has been no gap in the legal underpinning or in the enforcement powers under the notices that have been issued under Level 3 and Level 4. This change is not retrospective and does not need to be.

“All notices that have been issued are in the public domain, as is the legislation upon which they are based.”

Recent speculation that the Government’s legal advice had thrown doubt on the police enforcement powers under Level 4 is wrong. That speculation is based on draft views provided to agencies for feedback. That was not the considered advice of Crown Law, which was that there was no gap in enforcement powers.

The new law will also:

  • Recognise the centrality of health factors in the measures we need to take;
  • Provide that the Minister of Health become the decision maker on the advice of the Director-General of Health;
  • Provide a transparent basis for how the rules will work and how they can be enforced;
  • Also provide for economic and social factors to be taken into account in determining appropriate measures.

“The country has achieved considerable success in addressing the Covid-19 threat. We have all given up some our liberties as we have worked together to save thousands of lives. As we reduce strictures and restore freedoms, we expect the vast majority of New Zealanders will continue to comply voluntarily with the necessary measures at all Alert Levels, but as we have consistently said, we will enforce the rules where there is serious non-compliance.”

More from Claudia Geiringer on lockdown legality and the judicial review

Following the filing of a legal challenge to Covid lockdown restrictions by Andrew Borrowdale via a judicial review – see   A better looking challenge of Covid lockdown legality – law professor Claudia Geiringer responds:

RNZ:  Was Covid-19 lockdown legal? Professor Claudia Geiringer explains

“I’m in the camp that thinks the Ardern Cabinet are doing a magnificent job overall in managing an incredibly complicated regulatory challenge, but the problem is that they’ve inherited a legal framework for managing a public health crisis that in the view of a number of experts hasn’t turned out to be sufficiently nimble,” constitutional and parliamentary law expert Professor Claudia Geiringer told Checkpoint.

“The argument centres on these powers in the Health Act, which are at the heart of how the lockdown has been enforced.

“The key argument is that these powers are ‘ultra vires’, which means they go beyond their legal power, they go further than the law actually allows.

“The key argument relates to … a couple of orders that Ashley Bloomfield has made requiring us all to stay home, and the orders claim authority from a clause in the Health Act that says that in an epidemic a medical officer of health can require persons to be isolated, quarantined or disinfected.

“So the Director-General said, ‘the law says I can put people in isolation or quarantine, so I’m putting all of you – the whole country – into quarantine, isolation.’ And the argument is that it’s not clear the statute actually contemplates a direction to the community at large, as opposed to a medical officer quarantining, say, a particular infected individual”.

“It looks like some of the powers that have been relied on really may be more focused on making a requirement in relation to named individuals. And just to be clear, that’s not a slam dunk. There’s room for different views on this, and it may or may not succeed in court.”

So the judicial review may or may not succeed (obviously), but at least it will cover more of the legal arguments.

It matters for two reasons, Prof Geiringer said.

“The first is that these are some of the most extensive coercive powers ever to be exercised in this country’s history. Personally, I’m comfortable that they’re being exercised for good reason. But in a democracy when the state’s exercising coercive power, we want those powers to be authorised by our elected Parliament, and we want them to be authorised in the clearest possible terms, so that we can all know our rights and responsibilities.

“One other reason I think this really matters is that I think underlying this challenge there’s a significant underlying problem with the current law, which is that the power is located in the wrong place.

“Cabinet’s instinct throughout this period has been that important decisions about the timing and scope of the lockdown need to be made by them. And that’s got to be right hasn’t it – that these decisions are far too significant and multifaceted to be reposed in a medical officer of health, but that’s what the law currently does.

“In fact, if the Director-General has placed undue weight on Cabinet’s views in making these orders, that could actually give rise to an additional ground of legal challenge, because the statute doesn’t actually give any power to Cabinet.

“Cabinet has the power to put us into a State of Emergency … the minister does … and also to trigger the Epidemic Preparedness Act. But once they’ve done that, the specific coercive powers on which the police have primarily relied … all of that detail, it’s not actually for Cabinet, it’s for the Director-General of Health.

“Probably the Director-General of Health is entitled to take Cabinet’s views into account. But there’s at least an argument that he cannot be unduly influenced by them, because the decision in the statute is conferred on him”.

And that’s a key issue, whether one unelected public servant should be given so much power that can result in such a large effect on people and businesses. A health official will likely lean towards health considerations more than social and business considerations.

“I think there’s a very strong argument that some of the orders are ‘ultra vires’ … illegal [in laypeople’s terms] but the law in New Zealand in the end is what the courts say the law is.

“And you can expect that a judge faced with this complaint at this particular moment, might give the government an awful lot of leeway. So I’m not particularly keen on predicting what a court might do here.

“But what I would say is that I don’t think it’s satisfactory for us as a community to have such significant coercive powers based on such slight legal authority. I think we need a legal regime that better reflects what the government is trying to achieve.

“None of the arguments in this particular legal case that’s been brought are that the law couldn’t or shouldn’t provide that authority. The argument is that it doesn’t.

“So Parliament could meet tomorrow and shore up the legal powers. But the argument is that at the moment the powers that are being exercised are not there.”

The judicial review should at least start the process of checking whether laws have been followed correctly or not, and whether current laws are appropriate (like giving a public servant so much power beyond Government influence.

The Court of Appeal referenced a previous discussion be Geiringer (and Andrew Geddis) when it said:

As has been noted by the Regulations Review Committee  regarding notices issued under s 70 of the Health Act 1956 (20 April 2020) – and two of New Zealand’s leading public law academics, there are unresolved questions about the lawfulness of the notices issued under s 70 of the Health Act.



Is New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown lawful?

University of Otago Law Professor Andrew Geddis and Victoria University Law Professor Claudia Geiringer via the UK Constitutional Law Association website:  Is New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown lawful?

The New Zealand Government’s “go hard, go early” response to the COVID-19 pandemic has garnered widespread praise – both in New Zealand and internationally. On March 25, less than four weeks after New Zealand’s first COVID case was diagnosed, the country was put into a state of “Level 4 Lockdown”, reducing social and economic life to a bare minimum. Everyone was instructed to stay at home, except for limited “essential” purposes (in short, supermarket shopping, essential medical treatment, and brief localised exercise such as a walk or a run). All businesses were closed, except for those providing “essential” services. Physical proximity to those not in a person’s residential “bubble” was prohibited.

These measures undoubtedly have been effective, with the country now on a path to eliminate the virus. For that reason, it is perhaps not surprising that discussion of their legal status has been muted.

I’ve seen some questions raised over the last few weeks, for example:

Dr Dean Knight joins Kathryn to talk about the remarkable suit of legal powers the government has deployed during the coronavirus crisis. What are some of the rule-of-law implications?

Over the weekend – Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield used the Public Health Act to give police the power to arrest people who flout lockdown rules.

But University of Canterbury disaster law expert John Hopkins told Heather du Plessis-Allan that’s not what the act is for.

“We should welcome the fact that they introduced new laws at the weekend to make it more clear, but they’ve relied more on the Health Act, which is not really designed for the kind of lockdown that we’ve currently got.”

But he says that doesn’t mean it won’t be legally enforced.

“The courts would be very unlikely to take that given to the reality that we’re in. We’re under a state of emergency and the police powers are extensive under that legislation as well. They’re very broad.”

The second important thing that this new Health Act notice does is give these level four rules a much firmer legal footing. No one really has wanted to say it out loud for fear of undermining what needs to be a collective exercise, but it’s pretty apparent that the police actually couldn’t enforce many of the prohibitions we were being told were in place. And once that fact became common knowledge, via media stories like this one, there was a risk that general compliance with the level four lockdown requirements could suffer.

And so, this new notice is to be welcomed. It not only tells us with some greater clarity just what are “the rules”, it also provides a clear legal basis to enable the police to hold us to them. If they catch you launching a boat, or setting off for a 20km hike into the hills, or riding in a car with someone from outside of your bubble, or just loitering in the street because you are bored, they now have the lawful power to do something about it through arrest and charges.

Nathan Batts, a senior associate at Haigh Lyon, argues such restrictions on activity, along with the power to lock New Zealand into isolation and quarantine, may not be backed by legislative authority. And the police, he says, cannot enforce the will of ministers unless that will is expressed in law.

I don’t  remember seeing the National Opposition raising it but that could have been lost in the noise of Covid coverage.

A couple of legal lightweights took it to court, this was covered by media and also here Failures with habeas corpus writ against Ardern et al over lockdown ‘detention’.

The Geddis/Geiringer post addresses this:

Nevertheless, questions surrounding the legality of the lockdown received their first outing in the High Court this week, when Peters J dismissed an application by two litigants in person for habeas corpus (A v Ardern [2020] NZHC 796B v Ardern [2020] NZHC 814). Her Honour held in both cases that the conditions of the lockdown did not amount to “detention”, that the lockdown was in any event lawful, and that many of the issues raised by the applicant were not suitable for determination by way of habeas corpus.

These applications were doomed to fail. They were poorly argued, framed in large part as a personal attack against the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health. In A’s case, the applicant was already serving a sentence of home detention.

Both the judge and the lawyer representing the Crown said that a habeas corpus writ was the wrong approach and that it should have been done via a judicial review.

Nevertheless, we argue here that the formal legal status of the lockdown is far from secure. Given the significance of the threat to which the Government is responding, the New Zealand courts may well be reluctant to uphold a legal challenge. But the tenuous legal foundation of the lockdown regime represents a significant constitutional problem that needs to be addressed.

Unlike in the United Kingdom, the Government has, to date, located its lockdown powers entirely under the pre-existing legal regime relating to civil and public health emergencies.

Moving into the Level 4 Lockdown, the New Zealand Government issued an “epidemic notice” under the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006 and declared a state of national emergency under the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act 2002. These two steps triggered a range of executive government powers. Most significantly for our purposes, they unlocked a set of coercive powers reposed in medical officers of health under s 70 of the Health Act 1956. In practice, the s 70 powers have been exercised by New Zealand’s chief public health officer, the Director-General of Health.

Although this seemed to be the primary legal basis for the lockdown restrictions at the time, official Government statements, as well as Police enforcement action, purported to impose far greater limits on civil liberties. New Zealanders were directed to stay home in their bubbles, to receive no visitors, and to venture out only for the limited purposes set out in the opening paragraph above.

In the main, the Police have preferred not to rely on a parallel coercive powers regime to be found in the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act. That regime has its own problems, which are not discussed here.

On April 3, the Director-General moved to address this discrepancy. He issued a new notice – this time under the Health Act, s 70(1)(f), which empowers a medical officer of health to require persons to be isolated or quarantined. On this basis, the Director-General ordered that all persons in New Zealand remain in their residences and only leave for the purpose of “essential personal movement” as defined in the order (“the s 70(1)(f) notice”).

Police operational guidelines confirmed that these twin Health Act notices provided the primary basis for legal enforcement of the Level 4 Lockdown restrictions.

I haven’t seen any sign of the Police abusing their powers. They seem to have been much easier on enforcement that in Australia, who have had a less restrictive lockdown.

It has been effective but has it been legal?

It is clear that the Level 4 Lockdown rules have been very successful in their intended aim of eliminating the virus from the country. Furthermore, the New Zealand public’s support for (and voluntary compliance with) their requirements has been very high. From an effectiveness and social-licence perspective, there is little to criticise in them. However, the legal status of the Level 4 Lockdown rules is far more tenuous.

A first and critical question concerns whether Cabinet has overstepped the mark in purporting to direct the country into lockdown. Throughout the crisis, decisions as to whether and when to go into lockdown, and exactly how civil liberties are to be restricted, have been presented as residing in Cabinet. But that is not so. As set out above (and as acknowledged internally within Government in a Cabinet paper that has just been released), the only relevant coercive powers lie with medical officers of health under s 70. This raises a question as to whether any of Cabinet’s statements (especially, those backed up by coercive Police action) amount to a purported suspending of the law without consent of Parliament contrary to the Bill of Rights 1688. It also raises the possibility that the Director-General might be accused of acting under dictation in the making of his various orders.

Secondly, there is a real question as to whether the s 70 notices are ultra vires. Section 70(1)(m) permits a medical officer of health, by way of public notice, to “require to be closed … all premises … of any stated kind or description”. It is by no means clear that permits the Director-General to close all premises, subject to an express exemption – as he did in the order.

The s 70(1)(f) notice is arguably even more vulnerable. An initial question is whether the Level 4 Lockdown rules actually are a form of “isolation” or “quarantine”, given the broad exceptions for essential workers and essential activities that attach. Even if they are, it is highly debatable whether the Director-General’s power to “require persons … to be isolated or quarantined” empowers an order isolating or quarantining all persons throughout the country rather than specifically identified individuals. It is a power exercisable by a single public health official, with no requirement to consult anyone else in the making of the decision.

It appears to give the Director general of health extraordinary powers.

To be clear, Peters J in A v Ardern specifically rejected the argument that the s 70(1)(f) order was ultra vires (albeit in a brief obiter paragraph). In context, that outcome was unsurprising. Nevertheless, we think the point deserved fuller consideration.

Perhaps it will get fuller consideration if taken to appeal, but the particular applicant involved could not be relied on to present cogent arguments.

A third set of questions concerns the consistency of these notices with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA). The effect of that Act is that the Health Act notices can only impose limits on a range of civil and political rights (including the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and movement) if those limits are “demonstrably justified”. Combating COVID-19 clearly provides an exceptionally strong justification for limiting rights, and any court would be likely to accord the Government considerable latitude. Nevertheless, it can certainly be argued that some of the limits imposed by the notices go beyond what is necessary.

…We have identified above some specific deficiencies in New Zealand’s legal regime. Underlying these specific problems lie broader questions about where power should reside to limit civil liberties on such a significant scale. The instinct of the New Zealand’s government that at least some of these powers ought to reside with Cabinet is probably the correct one. But it finds no current basis in New Zealand law.

This post is written as New Zealand transitions from Level 4 Lockdown into Level 3, at which the country will see some (limited) loosening of restrictions on civil liberties but the essence of the lockdown regime will remain in place. The timing and details of the move to Level 3 have, again, been presented as a decision of Cabinet and will, again, be effected through further section 70 notices described as “orders”. Thus, the legal difficulties attending the Level 4 Lockdown have not, in our view, been resolved.

Although these legal deficiencies expose New Zealand’s COVID-19 response to a degree of on-going legal risk, A v Ardern and B v Ardern demonstrate how reluctant New Zealand courts may be to uphold a legal challenge.

But that was a very poor challenge which seemed more personal and political than based on sound legal reasoning.

Beyond the potential for judicial challenge, however, lie deeper rule of law considerations. The Level 4 (and upcoming Level 3) lockdowns impose the most extensive restrictions on New Zealanders’ lives seen for at least seventy years; perhaps ever. No matter how “necessary” these may be, we should expect such restrictions to have a clear, certain basis in law and be imposed through a transparent and accountable process.

It is to be hoped that, when it resumes next week, New Zealand’s Parliament will take the opportunity to put the lockdown regime on a more secure legislative footing.

Parliament in New Zealand resumes today, with some limitations.

National leader Simon Bridges was a lawyer and Crown prosecutor, perhaps this is something he could get his Opposition teeth into.

I have had a browse back through National press releases and it was raised by Justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell: Government must release Crown Law advice but that’s all I can see over the past month.

Ill-informed du Fresne attack on Drug Foundation’s Bell over cannabis referendum

Karl du Fresne (Stuff) has taken a swipe at Ross bell of the NZ Drug Foundation, claiming “Ross Bell is not worried about decriminalisation of cannabis but by the thought of the drugs trade being contaminated by the profit motive”: If corporates are best-placed to deliver a safe cannabis market, is that so wrong?

Oh, dear. Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, after years of agitating for relaxation of the drug laws, is fretting that liberalisation might open the way to corporate domination of the cannabis trade.

Hmmm. Perhaps he should heed the old saying about being careful what you wish for.

Bell has long advocated a permissive approach to so-called recreational drugs.

His argument is that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than criminalised. So you’d expect him to be thrilled that the Government has promised a binding referendum on decriminalisation of cannabis.

You can take it as read that the activists’ ultimate goal is decriminalisation of the drug altogether, and perhaps other drugs too. That’s how advocates of “progressive” social change advance their agenda: incrementally.

That’s a big step from the cannabis referendum, and a major ‘assumption’ based on nothing.

It’s a strategy that relies on a gradual softening-up process. No single step along the way, taken in isolation, is radical enough to alarm the public. Change is often justified on grounds of common sense or compassion, as the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill people can be.

But each victory serves as a platform for the next. Once change has bedded in and the public has accepted it as the new normal, the activists advance to the next stage. The full agenda is never laid out, because that might frighten the horses.

That sounds like nothing more than general scare mongering based on nothing.

Now, back to Bell’s misgivings about where the cannabis referendum might lead.

It’s not decriminalisation that worries him. Why would it, when for years he’s been using his taxpayer-subsidised job to lobby for exactly that outcome?

No, what upsets him is the thought of the drugs trade being contaminated by the profit motive. A liberal drugs regime is all very well, just as long as the trade doesn’t fall into the hands of wicked corporate capitalists.

A stupid way to put things. there are legitimate and I think fairly widely held concerns over the commercialisation of cannabis. Alcohol is a good example of how an intoxicating substance can be legally pushed for profit.

Bell’s vision, obviously, is of something much purer and more noble, although it’s not entirely clear what model he has in mind. A People’s Collective, perhaps.

Another baseless assertion.

The parallels with alcohol are obvious. Both can cause great harm to a minority of users, although activists like to play down the adverse consequences of drugs other than alcohol. We don’t hear much, for example, about the devastating effects cannabis can have on the young or the mentally unstable.

I’ve seen and heard quite a lot about that. It’s a primary reason for suggestions that there be an R18 on cannabis – similar to alcohol age restrictions, where even 18 has been controversial.

But if we’re going to have an honest national debate about cannabis, the important thing, surely, is that it should focus on social wellbeing rather than being distorted by covert ideological agendas.

No evidence of ‘covert ideological agendas’, just an assertion targeting someone who has been quite responsible in promoting drug law reform.

Stephen Franks responds:

Russell Brown, one of the best informed advocates of drug law reform in the media joins in.

Going by this (and other ill informed people with their own agendas like Bob McCoskrie (Families First), I think we can expect a fairly knarly debate on the cannabis referendum.

We should welcome robust arguments against too much liberalisation of drug laws, but I hope we get a lot better attempts than this by du Fresne.

The ‘grey area’ of political and non-political work done by parliamentary staffers

When politicians talk about ‘grey areas’ in separation political from non political work done by the staff of MPs they to an extent are correct – much of what an MP does has political connotations. But I think that MPs and parties have also used ‘grey areas’ as a way of excusing pushing boundaries on what work staffers can do. I know that at times these boundaries have been deliberately exceeded.

This can get tricky for parliamentary staff, whose jobs caan be reliant on the political success of the MPs they work for.

Misuse of parliamentary staff is one of the issues raised in the allegations of bullying and inappropriate use of staff made against National MP Maggie Barrie.

NZ Herald: Bridges says Barry management was no cause for concern, welcomes advice on definition of ‘political work’

National Party leader Simon Bridges said there is “an area of grey” in terms of what constitutes political and non-political work by parliamentary staffers and he welcomed scrutiny by the review into bullying at Parliament.

“Where there is a parliamentary purpose, it is clearly acceptable,” Bridges told the Herald.

“But it is really important the Parliamentary Service ensure that MPs and staff know where the line is so that the rules are followed.

“That does require Parliamentary Service to make sure they are educating and showing us the way.”

That’s putting the responsibility on staff. They should be clear about what sort of work they are required to do, and what sort of work is outside their job description.

He was commenting in the light of claims by a former staff member of North Shore MP Maggie Barry, that staff were expected to conduct party-political work such as writing the MP’s regular column including on the Northcote by-election and pamphlet for a National Party conference for over 60-year-olds.

Electoral law expert Andrew Geddis…

…says that MPs pressing their staff into doing political work gave them a far greater advantage in elections than non-MPs and the situation may need closer scrutiny.

“Taxpayer funding to hire MPs’ staff is given so that they can do their jobs as elected representatives, not to help them win re-election,” said Geddis, a professor of law at Otago University.

“If it gets misused for party purposes, sitting MPs get a massive advantage against their unfunded challengers.”

This is one of many financial and logistical advantages for sitting MPs and established parties. Free travel is another.

This can get tricky. Bridges was criticised for clocking up a big travel bill in his tour of the country earlier this year. It is important for the Leader of the Opposition communicate and connect with people around the country, but this is also a form of preliminary election campaigning. And their staff are involved in this.

Another electoral law specialist, Graeme Edgeler, said staff were allowed to be political to quite a large extent and it would boil down to what been in their employment contract.

A press secretary working for the National Party would be writing political press statements attacking the Government and calling for, say, Minister Iain Lees-Galloway to be sacked.

A primary role of an opposition MP is to criticise and attack Ministers, so staff helping with this are an integral part of the political process.

That would be a parliamentary staffer paid by Parliamentary Service doing a clearly political job.

“You are allowed to employ people to be highly partisan…according to parliamentary rules, the employees that you have can be expected to be highly partisan.”

He said there would be limits about how partisan a staffer could be and that assisting an MP for a parliamentary purpose would exclude seeking votes for the MP or fundraising.

Being political is what politicians do, so their staff can’t be disconnected entirely from it.

As Edgeler points out, the biggest issue here may not be that staff do political work, but the imbalance of power and the advantage this gives incumbent politicians over candidates who wish to challenge them – another very important part of our democratic process.

And incumbent MPs are the ones who are involved in making the employment rues for their staff.

Right To Vote For All petition

The petition:

Right to Vote for All

Dear Hon. Andrew Little,

We are calling on the Government to enshrine voting rights for all people who are incarcerated.

In 2010 National MP Paul Quinn introduced a Member’s Bill to Parliament that saw the complete removal of voting rights for prisoners, regardless of how long the sentence. Since then, the Supreme Court has upheld the High Court’s ruling that limiting the right to vote for prisoners is a breach of the Bill of Rights, section 12(a).

Voting must belong to all of us for the health of our democracy, and removing basic rights should never be used as a means to punish people We are proud of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history – where people have successfully campaigned for the right to vote for all Māori and women. That legacy should not be thrown away lightly.

That’s why we are calling on the Government to amend the Electoral Act of 1993 and ensure that all New Zealanders are able to determine who represents them, and who makes the laws that govern them.

Why is this important?

We believe that in a fair and democratic society all members should have the right to vote, and people living in prisons are part of our society. They are valued members of communities and families. To take away their right to vote is an unfair disenfranchisement

We all expect that people in prison have the opportunity to heal and learn so they can contribute to a thriving society when they return to their communities. By not allowing people to vote while in prison, we are removing their ability to invest in and contribute to society and our democratic process. It’s cruel and counter-productive.

When Parliament changed the law in 2010 they used voting rights as a form of punishment, and this breaches the Bill of Rights. As New Zealanders we seek fairness and community. If we reinstate voting rights for people serving time in prison, it means that come next election time, thousands more people would be able to participate in our democracy, and put their ballot in the box as an investment in their – and our – futures.

We believe a thriving society requires the voices of all it’s people in order to make decisions that elevate everyone. By including everyone’s voices we can have a truly representative democracy.

Jami-Lee Ross gives proxy vote to National

After over a week of absence Jami-Lee Ross resurfaced yesterday with a notice that he has given his proxy vote to National. He is now an independent MP but hasn’t been in Parliament since he was hospitalised a week and a half ago.

Making a point about ‘the maintenance of proportionality’ may be an attempt to thwart possible attempts to have him removed from parliament under the new waka jumping bill (Simon bridges recently said he has no intention of trying to invoke that at this stage).



Electoral law wrongdoing “doesn’t amount to much” – yet

If there is an end game, it won’t come this week. And if it won’t come this week, the political shocks for National may just keep coming.

Bridges admitted as much. “I think he has been recording me, and potentially many other members of Parliament, for a very long time.”

If Ross doesn’t crash and burn he could drag this out, just out of spite because his political (and employment) future looks very shaky.

Ross said on Tuesday: “The Electoral Act clearly states knowingly filing a false return is a corrupt practice. I know Simon filed a false return because Todd McClay and I spotted that false name in his return in January and suggested it needed to be tidied up.

“Simon Bridges knows exactly what Cathedral Club is. It was a name he used to hide a donation from a close friend of his. He claimed it was a clerical error. I call BS on that.”

The Herald further uncovered evidence showing Bridges knew what the Cathedral Club had been – because he attended dinners with Ross back in 2006. A photograph from one dinner shows Bhatnagar, Bridges and Ross together.

But if the donation was meant to be to the National Party – and not to Bridges personally – then what of it?

Ross says mistake or not, Bridges signed it and would have done so knowing the name would have meant Bhatnagar.

Geddis? Yes but no, says the law professor.

There is a possible argument of a “technical” breach but it would be extremely unlikely to hold water.

The Electoral Commission has an unofficial grace period, he believes, during which those who submit returns are afforded an opportunity to get the information right.