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The year in review

8 Dec 2023

| Author: Reweti Kohere

Every three years, the smiles of political candidates, frozen in time and space on billboards, are defaced with Sharpie-drawn moustaches, sexist comments and racism. Party leaders walk through malls of smartphone-wielding New Zealanders, eager to shake the hands of power and have a selfie to prove it. You’ll notice the dog whistles if you listen closely. And keep an eye out for the photo that captures a politician eating a hot dog, an ice cream or a sausage roll.

A general election provides a backdrop to almost everything that happens during the year it is held – and 2023 was no different. LawNews has looked back at the year that was, from the cyclone-stricken, inundated first few months and a king’s coronation to the removal of the last remnants of pandemic protections and the most recent six weeks (or was it three?) of the” interregnum”.

As the year draws to a close, a hotter, drier summer is on its way – a stark contrast to the deluge that marked the summer of 2022/23. But many of the issues that have characterised this year will persist as 2023 gives way to 2024. Here are some highlights of the past 12 months.

 

January

Severe weather hits the Coromandel and upper North Island on 4 January, forcing people to cut short their holidays and evacuate. Six days later, Cyclone Hale causes flooding and slips, particularly in Coromandel and Gisborne.

Dame Jacinda Ardern on 19 January announces the 2023 general election will be held on 14 October. More surprisingly, she announces she will resign as prime minister and Labour Party leader, saying she has nothing left in the tank. Days later, Chris Hipkins is elected unopposed as Labour leader and, on 25 January, is sworn in as the 41st prime minister. Carmel Sepuloni is sworn in as deputy prime minister, the first Pasifika person to hold the position.

More heavy rainfall closes out the month, giving way to catastrophic flooding in regions across the upper North Island. In Auckland, an entire summer’s worth of rain falls within one day, in what Niwa characterises as a 1-in-200-year event. Four people die during the weather event.

 

February

Just days after Auckland Anniversary weekend, another wave of severe weather and torrential rain hits New Zealand’s largest city, aggravating the flooding that has occurred in the preceding days. A series of significant, large-scale clean-up operations begin in Auckland, only for Cyclone Gabrielle to hit the North Island on 12 February. A national state of emergency is declared on Valentine’s Day.

With damage costing an estimated $14 billion, Gabrielle becomes the costliest tropical cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere and the deadliest cyclone and weather event to hit New Zealand.

It highlights the pressing issues of climate change and managed retreat, with the government urged to accelerate work on its Climate Adaptation Bill.

 

March

The 2023 census is held on March 7, with field collectors in cyclone-affected areas given an extra eight weeks to reach more people.

A week later, Police Minister Stuart Nash resigns after revelations of interference in police prosecutorial discretion. When other incidents of misconduct are revealed, Nash is stripped of all his remaining ministerial warrants. His ill-discipline kickstarts a trend of several other ministers being publicly pulled up for misconduct, including Kiritapu Allan, Michael Wood and Jan Tinetti.

The legal profession learns how it might be represented and regulated when the independent review panel publishes its recommendations, chief among them the creation of a new, independent watchdog and the incorporation of te Tiriti o Waitangi in an amended Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.

ADLS members elect Wellington-based Tony Herring, a commercial and property partner at Gibson Sheat, as president to succeed Marie Dyhrberg KC. ADLS proposes changing its name to The Law Association, in reflection of its national reach and its more modern ambitions. Members ultimately vote in favour of the name change.

 

April

LawNews runs its annual technology issue, with articles from the organisation’s Technology and Law committee highlighting the legal challenges mounted against AI tools, lawyers’ concerns about ChatGPT and other issues. It follows Parliament’s decision in March to ban video-sharing social media app TikTok on devices with access to its network, citing cybersecurity concerns.

In devastating news, Martelli McKegg senior associate Telise Kelly, recently elected to the ADLS Council and a member of its Family Law committee, passes away after being struck by a vehicle outside the North Shore District Court. Tributes from the profession describe a cheeky, generous and optimistic woman (LawNews issue 13).

As part of Hipkins’ policy bonfire, the government scraps its Three Waters plans to amalgamate the country’s water services into four mega-entities, instead proposing 10 new regional bodies based on existing local authority boundaries and the retention of co-governance arrangements. National and Act quickly reject the revised proposal; National repeats it will restore council ownership and control of the assets.

IRD releases its long-awaited report on the effective tax rate (ETR) that over 300 of New Zealand’s high-wealth families paid relative to their “economic income” between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2021. The IRD concludes the average, GST-inclusive ETR paid by the wealthiest on all sources of income is 9.5%. By comparison, the GST-inclusive ETR for people earning an $80,000 salary is about 30%. But IRD and the government fail to tell taxpayers that unrealised capital gains (or “on paper” gains) were included in the calculation for “rich” New Zealanders, while the calculation for “ordinary” taxpayers did not include this novel way of determining income. Revenue Minister David Parker confirms there will be “no new tax policy or tax switch” because of the report, although it will “provide a fundamental baseline for debate” on the tax system.

 

May

Having ruled out any new taxes, including on wealth or capital gains, the Labour government’s “no-frills” 2023 budget – the sixth and, ultimately, last budget by Finance Minister Grant Robertson – focuses on the cost of living and building better infrastructure in the face of climate change. National’s Christopher Luxon slams it as the “blow-out Budget”.

One of the most controversial amendment bills to pass into law in 2023, the Companies (Directors’ Duties) Amendment Bill aimed to clarify and make explicit what directors may consider when making decisions based on the best interests of their company. The reform (which receives royal assent in August) is criticised as a “solution looking for a problem” (LawNews issue 15).

Having acceded to the British throne on 8 September 2022, King Charles III is crowned nearly eight months later in a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. His Majesty remains the sovereign and head of state of New Zealand, yet new research indicates a majority of New Zealanders believe the country would vote to become a republic by 2033.

The Supreme Court’s likely direction in an upcoming fiduciary relationships law case is discussed at ADLS’ Cradle to Grave conference. The Supreme Court in mid-June will hear the “Alphabet case” of A, B & C, concerned with whether an abusive parent, having gifted the bulk of his property to a trust to deliberately thwart any meaningful claims his adult children may have against his estate in the future, continues to owe them fiduciary duties.

 

June

After nearly half a century immersed in the law and 20 years on the bench, District Court Judge Philip Recordon hangs up his gown. The self-described “stirrer” says his legal career has always been “very much [about] the underdog, whatever I did. It was for the people who needed help”.

In one of the Employment Court’s most significant judgments of 2023, Customs is found to have unjustifiably dismissed an employee who refused to get vaccinated against covid-19. Part of Chief Judge Christina Inglis’ reasoning is that Customs, in response to the employee’s vaccination decision, failed to actively engage and apply the very tikanga and tikanga values it had incorporated into its governance and employment relationship documents. The decision continues a recent trend where the courts have engaged meaningfully with “Aotearoa’s first law”.

The Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) finds the average legal worker in New Zealand is effectively working nearly a day for free each week and is not being paid or formally recognised for their overtime. Closing out the month, in an election policy announcement, National says it will impose a new 40% cap on sentencing discounts, restore its repealed “Three Strikes” law, remove taxpayer funding for s 27 cultural reports and redirect the funds toward helping victims access support services, and grant remand prisoners access to rehabilitative programs. People spoken to by LawNews question whether Parliament should fetter judicial discretion in the way National suggests.

 

July

On 1 July, New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to ban single-use plastics, including plastic straws and cutlery. The prime minister signs a free trade agreement with the EU on 9 July.

In two court cases that capture the nation’s attention, the Auckland District Court starts hearing health and safety charges following the deadly Whakaari White Island eruption on 9 December 2019, which killed 22 people and left 25 seriously injured. And in the High Court at Christchurch, 42-year-old doctor Lauren Anne Dickason stands trial for murdering her three young daughters just weeks after emigrating to New Zealand. She pleads not guilty by reason of insanity or infanticide.

Three people are killed in a shooting in Auckland’s CBD on 20 July, including the alleged gunman. One police officer and four other people are injured during the incident.

In an edited version of a recent speech, British Bar Standards Board Director-General Mark Neale makes the case for an independent regulator firmly anchored in the profession and “not a creature of government or Parliament”. The comments follow a period of consultation run on the independent review panel’s recommendations by NZLS, whose council largely accepts in principle the recommendations. NZLS sends its response to the justice minister.

At the end of July, a valedictory sitting is held for retiring Justice Ailsa Duffy. In forceful comments, Duffy laments the continuing failure in New Zealand of poor access to legal services, noting the very barriers she spoke of at her swearing-in ceremony in 2007 have remained “firmly in place”.

 

August

Regional, district and city councils in the Hawke’s Bay and Napier region accept the government’s $556 million cost-sharing agreement to help recover from the destruction of Cyclone Gabrielle.

LawNews runs its inaugural employment law issue, with members from the ADLS Employment Law committee highlighting the employment status of gig economy and religious community workers, when out-of-office conduct becomes an employment issue and other issues in the specialist jurisdiction.

By the middle of August, the last remaining covid-19 public health requirements are removed. After a month-long trial, a majority jury verdict finds Lauren Dickason guilty of murdering her three daughters. She will be sentenced on December 19.

The Supreme Court, by month’s end, releases its eagerly anticipated (and long-awaited) Mainzeal decision on directors’ duties, unanimously finding the company’s directors – including former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley – breached the Companies Act 1993 and are liable for nearly $40m, plus interest. Conscious of the impact of its decision on directors and good governance practice, the court outlines the broader implications of its judgment.

 

September

On 8 September, Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro formally dissolves the 53rd Parliament.

Merepaia King (Ngāti Māhanga/Ngāti Te Wehi – Tainui), a former Buddle Findlay partner, on 9 September is sworn in as a judge of the Employment Court – the first Māori judge to be appointed to the specialist bench in its 129 years of operation and the first Employment Court judge to be sworn in on a marae.

A state of emergency is declared in the Gore District, following heavy rain and flooding, and is updated to cover the entire Southland region.

The Law Commission publishes He Poutama, a study paper completing the tikanga Māori project led by Justice Christian Whata (Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Tamateatūtahi).

 

October

The ADLS formally becomes The Law Association. Delving deeper into the Act Party’s election policy of Parliament defining the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi for the first time, LawNews canvasses the history of the principles, their 21st-century relevance, and broader issues about their place in New Zealand’s constitution.

The country goes to the polls on 14 October. Preliminary results put National in a prime position to form a government with Act, although unclear is the need for NZ First’s support. Except for Labour, all the other major political parties score increased support.

Judge Evangelos Thomas convicts Whakaari Management Ltd of one health and safety charge relating to the Whakaari White Island eruption. Out of the original 13 defendants charged by WorkSafe, Whakaari Management remained; six had pleaded guilty while six had their charges dismissed.

Former British Supreme Court Justice Lord Jonathan Sumption visits New Zealand. Speaking to a packed house at Chapman Tripp’s Auckland offices, Lord Sumption broaches how the rule of law – one of the most familiar catchphrases in the legal lexicon – should interact with human rights.

 

November

On 3 November, the Electoral Commission concludes vote counting. The official results indicate National and Act do need NZ First to form a government. After three weeks of negotiations, incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon on 23 November announces an historic three-way coalition with Act and NZ First.

Numerous institutions nationwide, including St Kentigern College, Wellington and Auckland City Hospitals, and the High Court at Auckland, receive email bomb threats, prompting lockdowns and police searches.

Pro-Palestinian protestors block the entrance to the Ports of Auckland, in response to the 2023 Israel-Hamas war. Police arrest at least six protesters, including criminal barrister Lucy Rogers.

The Port Waikato by-election is held. Preliminary results indicate National’s Andrew Bayly wins by a landslide, receiving just over 14,000 votes and more than doubling his 2020 margin of 4,313 votes. Christopher Luxon on 27 November is sworn in as the 42nd Prime Minister by Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro. The executive council is sworn in. The sixth National government begins.

 

December

The opening of the 54th session of Parliament takes place on 5 and 6 December. ■

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