The Resource Management Act's use of criminal prosecution to deter people from breaking its rules is the subject of research at the University of Canterbury.
Doctoral student Mark Wright is critically reviewing the RMA’s sanctioning regime and exploring potential alternatives. He has worked both as a Crown prosecutor in Auckland and Rotorua, and as a lawyer prosecuting environmental non-compliance cases in Tauranga.
Mr Wright says it is striking that the same system that is used to punish assailants and burglars is also used to punish people who have broken RMA rules. Equally, from his legal experience, he knows the system can play out substantially differently in RMA cases.
“There is a difference between the law itself and how it works in practice. There are thousands – if not tens of thousands – of breaches of the RMA every year, yet under 100 prosecutions a year. In addition, every council has a different approach to prosecution.
“Criminal law can be a very effective deterrent as it can result in large fines and, in extreme cases, individuals being sent to prison, but it’s also a very expensive and time-consuming process. Some of the smaller councils would never consider taking a prosecution. What it leads to is a system where there are not many prosecutions being undertaken, and a lot of variation between regions.”
Using deterrence theory, Mr Wright is exploring how well the current system is working to discourage breaches of the rules. If rates of prosecution are low, he suggests the deterrent effect is also likely to be diminished. As well, he plans to investigate the deeper question of whether it is even appropriate for RMA breaches to be called criminal offences.
Part of Mr Wright’s doctoral research will involve looking at how other countries sanction breaches of environmental law and considering what alternatives may exist. He is also reviewing the history of the RMA and how its sanctioning regime evolved. The final step will be to look at options for possible sanctions reform.
Mr Wright began his doctoral research in December 2016, after successfully applying for a doctoral scholarship with UC’s School of Law. He was also awarded a UC Doctoral Scholarship and a New Zealand Law Foundation Doctoral Scholarship.