1.1 The Environment Court is a specialist court that deals with appeals from council decisions on resource consent applications and submissions on the plans and policy statements that guide development throughout New Zealand. Its functions are performed by specialist judges supported by suitably qualified commissioners with expertise in resource management, engineering, science, etc.
1.2 The Court is tasked with making decisions that are of fundamental importance in relation to allocation of resources and the stewardship of New Zealand’s environment. The decisions it makes can involve investments in developments worth several hundred million dollars. Indeed, the scope of the Environment Court’s role is such that its decisions have the potential to affect New Zealanders’ day-to-day quality of life more than any other court in the judicial system.
1.3 As successor to the Planning Tribunal (and before it the Town and Country Planning Appeal Board), the Environment Court performs the role of a specialist appellate body in relation to planning issues that has existed since 1953. The Board, Tribunal and now the Environment Court have always had a separate specialist jurisdiction, with its own registry and administration.
1.4 The Government has recently embarked on the most wide-ranging and significant reform of the Environment Court since the establishment of the Appeal Board. Recent developments have seen the Court‘s role in plan appeals completely removed in the case of the Canterbury Regional Plan, and its role would be significantly reduced under the “bespoke” process proposed for the Auckland Unitary Plan process.
1.5 Although details are sparse given the lack of consultation, thus far, with the legal or planning professions, it appears to be an open secret that Government is considering the integration of the Environment Court into the District Court such that it would no longer have separate status and function as a specialist Court with judges (and commissioners) devoted to resource management proceedings.
1.6 These developments appear to be fuelled by what we consider to be misconceptions in relation to the role and effectiveness of the Court.
1.7 Many people who are involved in Resource Management processes; practitioners, applicants and submitters alike, would dispute the need for radical reform of the Environment Court’s role and function. They express a concern that alternatives that do not include a substantive role for the Court are likely to put huge pressure on council resources, and potentially result in decision-making processes that are more costly, as well as time consuming and less certain. Council hearings would also be more formal, and so less accessible to the general public, at least without legal representation. The quality of decision making and plan content may ultimately suffer; at greater overall cost to the environment and economy.
1.8 Some would also say that the recent Government interventions in the Resource Management field, not only involving the Environment Court but also in relation to recent issues such as the threat to override Auckland plan-making processes, reflects an issue of constitutional significance involving the over-reaching of the Government in judicial processes. The recently introduced (under urgency) Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Bill, whereby the Government can effectively insist on new special housing areas, and whereby there is very limited scope to appeal decisions to approve housing in special housing areas, is perhaps a further (and the latest) case in point.
1.9 Whichever view is taken, these matters are too significant not to be aired and debated in an open and democratic way before any further decisions are made or legislative action taken.