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Book Review: Local Authorities Law in New Zealand

By Kenneth Palmer

Reviewed by Sharron Wooler*

Weighing in at 1236 pages, this is a worthy successor to Palmer’s seminal 1993 text Local Government Law in New Zealand and ably meets its purpose of recognising the growth in local government legislation and case law in the intervening 18 years. Few, if any, aspects of laws applying to local government are untouched.

It is a useful and extensive resource that would adequately answer the daily questions arising for general lawyers, council officers, elected members, parliamentarians and general interest groups. It is readable, remarkable in its breadth, and well-referenced. For those unfamiliar with general legal principles there are brief introductions covering contract, tort and administrative law, mostly in an essay and case analysis format familiar to textbook readers, with ample and apparently accurate (those that I checked) footnoting and analysis.

The author has brought the law up to 1 November 2011, and I could not find any notable oversights or omissions in statute, case law or coverage within that period.

Pains have been taken to provide the Auckland upheaval with its own chapter recognising recent reforms, which are the most significant for Auckland since 1963. It gives context to the controversies and successes prior to the concerns about the workability of local government there, and is a helpful chapter for those who have not been involved in the changes.

Chapter 23 is noteworthy in providing both the history and theory of local authorities; from the 19th Century foundations through the many financial, structural and philosophical reforms. The book is not a political work, but in its careful scholarship and over-riding theory that understanding must inform democratic decision-making, it provides an elegant yet unspoken critique.

There is a separate chapter on Māori and Local Government, as well as good coverage of Māori issues within other chapters (such as Local Authorities Structure and Purpose).

As is common in the book, there is a brief purpose statement to the chapter. It then proceeds, via a clear chapter contents page, to cover off various areas including representation, rating, resource management, heritage, transport, language, and customary interests. It ends with an overview that references the changes since Palmer wrote on that topic in 1988, encompassing the multiplicity of “references and provisions honouring and implementing the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” that are now to be found in this area of law.

Topics such as employment, reserves, conservation, contracting and tendering, liquor licensing, dog control and the like, sit alongside careful chapters on resource management planning decision-making and consenting processes. These latter chapters again are relevant, accurate and well-referenced, demonstrating the author’s long-standing and sound overview of the area. The specialist reader will want to go further, as will those seeking specific legal advice, but there is much of use even to this sector of the reading audience. It is a thoughtful book that would repay delving into the various chapters just to widen the viewpoint of those in specialist practice.

A vital chapter entitled “Fire Services and Civil Defence” provides comprehensive entry-points to guide the reader through the various powers, players and provisions in this lesser known area. It ends with reference to the situation in Canterbury, including the powers of CERA and other legislative interventions.

The few oddities found in indexing point more towards the conceptual organisation of the book than to omissions or inaccuracy: for example – “LGOIMA” [Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987] is not in the index under “L” but “official information” under “O” will get you there and LGOIMA is listed in the table of statutes. Yet other statutes are listed in the index as well as the table.

The one possible limitation of this work is that it comes out just as major reforms to local government are being announced that have the potential to make various entries and perhaps whole chapters obsolete within a very short timeframe. The government paper “Better local government” released on 19 March 2012 is aimed at “refocusing” the role of local government, benchmarking income and expenditure, giving new powers in relation to employment, elected members, intervention in council affairs, reorganisation proposals, allocation of regulatory matters, infrastructure costing and development contributions policy review.

Given the range of matters being reviewed, some sections of the book will require updating in 2013 or shortly thereafter. That said, the 1993 version weathered similar changes while remaining a useful reference work on both principles and legislation in the 18 years before this version. Perhaps the author could produce an e-book companion volume to ensure its ongoing currency and contribution to local authority law. 

LOCAL AUTHORITIES LAW IN NEW ZEALAND by Kenneth Palmer, Thomson Reuters, March 2012, 978-0-864727-33-6, 1236 pages, $236 (GST and p&h excl). Available in paperback.

*Sharron Wooler is an associate specialising in resource management, local government and public law at Cooney Lees Morgan in Tauranga, representing and advising local authorities there. Before this she worked with private and public sector development clients in practice in Auckland. She has been research counsel to the Environment Court and tutored and lectured at the Auckland University Law School.

This review was published in LawTalk 794, 27 April 2012, page 18.


Last updated on the 3rd May 2012