New Zealand Law Society - Continuing the constitutional conversation

Continuing the constitutional conversation

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Overseas experts will take part in a Law Foundation-supported forum next month that aims to continue the national debate on our constitutional arrangements.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act: Continuing the Conversation will take place on 3 June at the Legislative Council Chamber in Parliament, hosted by the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson.

The forum follows last year’s thorough consultation process by the Constitutional Advisory Panel, involving 100 meetings and more than 5,000 written submissions. A continued constitutional conversation was among the key recommendations of its report in November.

One of the forum organisers, Professor Andrew Geddis of Otago University, says that re-examination of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 was another of the panel’s recommendations.

“Those of us with an academic interest in the Bill of Rights thought it would be useful to pick up where the panel left off and engage those who think about these issues, including getting views from experienced overseas people from countries with bills of rights like ours, but with additional features,” he says.

Back in 1990 the Government decided that New Zealand’s Act should have only limited rights, which possibly are not comprehensive enough now.

“For example, privacy is now a much more thought-about concept than it was back then.

“It’s not clear the Bill of Rights is working properly in terms of legislation being passed. A lot of the time, Parliament doesn’t pay any attention to it.

“There’s the question of whether the courts should have greater powers to use the Bill of Rights Act through, for example, a formal finding to Parliament that there are problems with a piece of legislation.

“At the moment, the Bill of Rights Act can be changed by a simple majority. Should it be amended so that a super-majority is required for change?

“The Constitutional Advisory Panel didn’t have a view on these things. It just said that they should be considered,” Professor Geddis says.

Features such as privacy rights are included in bills of rights laws in Australia and the United Kingdom, as are parliamentary committees charged with examining the compatibility of legislation with their bills of rights.

“This is a forum that enables professionals to agree on some things, if there is consensus to be found. If there isn’t consensus, that also tells us something. But you have to have the conversation,” he says.

The other organisers of the forum are Professor Claudia Geiringer of Victoria University and Professor Paul Rishworth of Auckland University.

Last year the Law Foundation supported two events that helped promote debate around the Government’s constitutional review. These were a five-part debate series on National Radio in April and May, and a Victoria University Conference in August, Unearthing New Zealand’s Constitutional Traditions. Both were organised by the New Zealand Centre for Public Law.

Lynda Hagen is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

Event details

3 June, Legislative Council Chamber, Parliament. Morning session open to the public – three visiting experts will present papers:

  • Professor Stephen Gardbaum, McArthur Foundation Professor of International Justice and Human Rights, UCLA Law School;
  • Tom Hickman, Reader in Public Law, University College, London (note: Dr Hickman will also speak at Otago and Auckland law schools following this event); and
  • Joanna Davidson, barrister and former Victoria Government Special Counsel for Human Rights, Melbourne.

To register, please visit:

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