Another successful year for the Environment Court

The Environment Court’s 2016 Annual Review (Review) was recently released. The third of its kind, the Review is intended to complement and provide commentary on the Registrar’s Annual Report to Parliament.

Key takeaway points from the Review are summarised below.

Case types

The two largest categories of cases heard by the Environment Court were appeals against decisions of consent authorities, and appeals on proposed policy statements or plans.

Appeals concerning the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) were a notable feature of the Court’s work in 2016, many of them being lodged toward the end of the year. A large number of the PAUP appeals were resolved between the parties, or through alternative dispute resolution as directed by the Court.

Processing times

The Court has continued to achieve a high clearance rate across all types of cases. The Review suggests that this is the result of a number of strategies adopted by the Court, including:

  • individualised case management;
  • the use of alternative dispute resolution;
  • streamlined hearings; and
  • the use of modern technology.

There are a number of societal factors which may also have impacted on lodgement rates and the speed of resolution, including:

  • a fall in the overall number of plan appeals, which may in part be due to the greater extent to which National Policy Statements and National Environment Standards have been promulgated by central government in recent years;
  • the legal and expert witness costs of mounting a case; increasingly limited public notification of consent applications;
  • legislative changes that have modified the extent of the Court’s jurisdiction;
  • fiscal austerity having a chilling effect on resource consent activities; and
  • the use of Boards of Inquiry to investigate matters of national significance.

Self-representation

A distinctive feature of the Environment Court is the frequent involvement of self-represented parties. The Court must therefore ensure that hearings are accessible and that all parties are treated fairly, while also processing cases efficiently. The Court strikes this balance by offering guidance to self-represented parties on matters of process, but stopping short of offering advice on legal or substantive matters.

Alternative dispute resolution

In recent years, the Court has made increasing use of its powers under section 268 of the Resource Management Act 1991 (the Act). Under the Act, the Court may initiate alternative dispute resolution processes between parties to facilitate resolution before or during the course of a hearing. In addition to ordering mediation, the Court can offer conciliation, expert witness conferences, expert determination and judicial settlement conferences. These services are usually delivered by the Court’s Commissioners (and sometimes outside specialists), while judges will run settlement conferences.

Alternative forms of dispute resolution are demonstrably more cost- and time-efficient than standard hearings, and the Court has found these methods to be particularly effective in resolving appeals about plans and policy statements.

Technological advances

The Court upgraded the look and feel of its website in July 2016. Further, Members of the Court now routinely use portable technology devices (such as tablets) for hearings and other aspects of their work. This is particularly useful given that the Court often has to relocate to the locale of the parties to conduct conferences and hearings.

Significant decisions

The Review also contains useful summaries of the Court’s significant decisions in 2016 at Appendix 2.

It is clear that 2016 was another highly successful year for the Court. The Committee commends the Court on its ongoing innovations in case management, alternative dispute resolution and technology.

The full Review can be viewed at here. The Registrar’s Annual Report to Parliament can be viewed here.

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