In a submission to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Council for the second Universal Periodic Review of New Zealand’s human rights record, the Law Society identified a need to strengthen mechanisms for the protection of human rights in New Zealand.
The Law Society asserted that there were a number of legislative measures that could hinder the country in meeting domestic and international human rights obligations.
The President of the Law Society, Chris Moore, states that New Zealand’s human rights record fares well in general, this largely depends on rigorous scrutiny of policy and legislation due to constitutional arrangements. He added that because there is no supreme bill of rights or entrenched constitution, the system relies on close observation of the rule of law combined with political restraint. Therefore it is crucial to address concerns and inconsistencies with human rights standards once they have been identified. Moore states:
“Unfortunately on a number of recent occasions legislation has been passed despite conflicting with the rule of law and human rights.”
The Law Society has urged New Zealand to take action in a number of areas to ensure it complies with human rights standards and the rule of law.
“There have been twelve pieces of legislation in recent years that have been identified as inconsistent with the rights and freedoms protected in the New Zealand Bill of Rights, and on a number of occasions urgency has been used in Parliament to limit or bypass select committee scrutiny,” he said.
Among the most recent legislation cited by the Committee, is the controversial Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013. Both the Attorney General’s report as well as the Law society pointed out that the Act appeared to be inconsistent with the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to judicial review under section 27 of the Bill of Rights. However the Bill was passed under urgency, thus bypassing the select committee process and denying public submissions. The Law Society took the following position:
“Not allowing the courts to review decisions made in exercise of a legislative function and refusing to provide reasons for rushing the legislation through is quite alien to the expectations we have of our parliamentary process.”
The Law Society expressed its concerns regarding the use of parliamentary urgency to pass bills stating that “[m]isuse of urgency, particularly where it is used to bypass the select committee process, offends against principles of democratic legitimacy”.
Moore listed a number of other bills that raise serious questions regarding New Zealand’s compliance with both international and domestic human rights obligations.
In response to these concerns, the Law Society’s has proposed for the government to take concrete, targeted steps in order to increase the visibility of international human rights obligations in New Zealand. In its submission, the Law Society has also advised that the government establishes a formal process for publicising, considering and responding to human rights recommendations by United Nations bodies.