The High Court just cracked open the door to expressly telling Parliament that it has made laws that unacceptably breach human rights. But it also said that it really, really, really doesn't want to walk into that strange room.

Regular readers will know that the issue of prisoner voting - or, more accurately, the decision of the National and Act Parties to take away the right of prisoners to vote - is something that I've had cause to post on in the past. (If curious, see here and here.) You might think this is a topic that is done and dusted. After all, Parliament has spoken (even if its words, imnsho, amount to an obscenity.) The law is clear. At the election on September 20th, as with all subsequent ones until a future parliamentary majority revisits the issue, no person who is currently in jail serving a sentence of imprisonment will be permitted to vote.* End of story.

But ... is it? Because not all those told by a narrow majority of MPs that they have no right to participate in the governance of the country were prepared to just sit back and meekly accept that decision. Instead, as I discussed in this post, four prisoners have gone to the High Court and sought to get the legislation preventing them from voting (s.80(1)(d) of the Electoral Act 1993) declared "inconsistent" with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA). (Kim Workman from Rethinking Crime and Punishment also usefully discusses the case and the reasons behind it here.)

Before we get too excited, such a declaration would not invalidate the relevant bit of the Electoral Act; the NZBORA specifically is written to stop this outcome from occuring. So even if the prisoners are successful in their application, it won't actually affect their legal right to vote one little bit. It will, however, serve as a pretty weighty reminder of just how wrong the original parliamentary decision was. That's because such a declaration will amount to a formally announced judicial finding that the removal of the vote from prisoners is a breach of their individual rights that cannot be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society

Note that last bit. It's not that the issue is a bog standard policy one on which some might prefer one outcome and others another. Nor is it an issue on which there are valid arguments on either side, and reasonable minds may disagree on the weight or merit of those arguments. Instead, a declaration of inconsistency in this case would represent a judge examining the issue (the removal of the fundamental right to participare in the collective decision as to who will govern the country), exploring the reasons given for why it is necessary to limit the right in this fashion, and then explicitly announcing that Parliament has no defensible reasons for deciding to take that right away from the individuals concerned. That's a pretty damning conclusion for a court to reach. And it's got the capacity to create a fair amount of political embarrassment for whomsoever may be in government at the time.

So, not surprisingly, the Crown (aka the present government and its predecessor) has been resolute in arguing that the courts simply don't have the power to make such declarations. Whatever else the NZBORA is for, and however else it can be used as a check on governmental encroachment on individual rights, it doesn't let courts make the sort of declarations that the prisoners are asking for. Which is what the Crown argued before the High Court in response to the prisoners' case, in an effort to have the Court "strike out" their claim on the basis that the court had no jurisdiction to hear it. A claim that the High Court just rejected in a ruling, Taylor v Attorney General, released at lunchtime on Friday.

Before I turn to look at what the Court said, here's why the case matters. This case is not the first time that someone has tried to get a court to declare some legislation to be "inconsistent" with the NZBORA. (One of those cases was brought by the sometime Act Party MP John Boscawen, in an effort to have the Electoral Finance Act 2007 declared inconsistent with the NZBORA - a point that anyone fulminating that all this "rights nonsense" is just left-wing activism run amock might care to reflect on.) However, in past cases where such claims have been made, the courts have always managed to find a jurisdictional reason to avoid having to decide the matter. In other words, they've managed to say that it isn't the "right sort" of case in which to say whether such declarations are even an available remedy, let alone one that will be granted.

In the present case, that wiggle room didn't exist, for three reasons;

  1. The case was being brought in the High Court (i.e. it wasn't a case where a higher court was being asked to consider a matter that should properly have been raised "at first instance" in the "originating" court);
  2. The people bringing the case were directly affected by the legislation at issue** (i.e. this wasn't a case where the courts were being asked to examine the legislation "in the abstract", but rather in the concrete context of its application to named flesh and blood individuals);
  3. The only available remedy here was a declaration of inconsistency (i.e. the court couldn't find another way to try and make good any unjustifiable limit that is imposed on the prisoners' rights).

Which means that the judge on the case, Justice Brown, really had to bite the bullet. Either he had to accept the Crown's argument that courts cannot ever give the remedy sought - a formal declaration that Parliament acted inconsistently with the NZBORA by passing the legislation at issue - and throw the case out altogether, or he had to accept that such a remedy does potentially exist (before at a later date going on to decide whether or not to grant it).

As previously intimated, he chose the latter course of action. Declarations of inconsistency are, he concluded, potentially an available arrow in the judiciary's remedial quiver. Or, if that metaphor flew by you, here's the unvarnished version (at para. 82):

I consider that the respondents [the Crown] have not demonstrated that the claim should be struck out on the ground that it can be said that the Court undoubtedly lacks jurisdiction (in the strict sense) to issue declarations of inconsistency of the nature sought in the statement of claim.

So the prisoners are free to continue with their case, which now moves to an examination of the substantive claim (is the change to s.80(1)(d) of the Electoral Act inconsistent with the NZBORA?) and decision on consequent remedial action (what, if anything, should a court do about the matter?). And, given that the changes to the Electoral Act leading to the prisoners' disenfranchisement clearly cannot be justified in a free and democratic society (this, remember, is what the Attorney General told Parliament when it first looked at the measure), you might think that such a declaration is pretty much a given. But not so fast.

Here's what Brown J continues with (at para. 83):

[My] decision dismissing the current application could be a Pyrrhic victory for the applicants. To adopt the terminology of the Privileges Committee, my view of the Court’s current jurisdiction to grant declarations of inconsistency is: in theory “yes” but in practice “no”.

In other words, even if there's a jurisdiction to grant declarations of inconsistency in theory, there is no right to get one if the Court agrees with your substantive claims. The issue of remedy is a discretionary one.  And when it comes to what courts will choose to do, Brown J thinks there's a bunch of reasons why he (and other High Court judges) are going to be very loathe to actually come out and formally declare Parliament's legislation to be inconsistent with the NZBORA.

  1. Judges might be able to come up with reasons for why they can give such declarations at present, but they really, really would like the security of legislative permission (as given in s. 92J of the Human Rights Act 1993) before doing so;
  2. New Zealand's deep attachment to parliamentary sovereignty as a basis for its constitutional order means that the courts are very reluctant to do anything that might be seen as challenging Parliament's role as sovereign lawmaker;
  3. The courts can soft-soap their message by just noting in the body of their reasoning that although they conclude some legislation cannot be justified under s.5 of the NZBORA,  s.4 of the NZBORA forces them to apply it anyway (as happened in the Supreme Court's decision in R v Hansen).
  4. In the immediate case, the fact that Parliament went ahead and passed the law removing the right of prisoners to vote after the Attorney-General told them that this was inconsistent with the NZBORA means that the Courts ought not to second-guess that action with a declaration.

So this judgment is at best a foot in the door. It affirms the possibility that courts can, in an appropriate case, make the sort of declaration that the prisoners want. But it also signals a marked judicial reluctance to do so in any sort of conceiveable circumstance. Which, I suspect, is going to satisfy no-one at all; a point I will return to in a future post.   

One last matter, however, before I draw this one to a close. A couple of months ago I posted about an event I helped coordinate at Parliament, discussing the future of our NZBORA and what (if any) changes to that legislation might be desirable. Two of the participants at it - Professor Stephen Gardbaum and Tom Hickman - had somewhat differing views on whether New Zealand courts should get into the business of issuing the sorts of declarations at issue in Taylor v AG. I won't rehash the arguments that they made here, as I'm presently in the midst of editing them (along with some other stuff) for publication on the internet. When that's done, I'll let you all know - it makes for an interesting commentary on just these sorts of developments.


* No person, that is, except for the 37 prisoners serving sentences of life imprisonment or preventive detention that Graeme Edgeler has identified as actually being given the right to vote by the National and Act Party's legislation. Oops, indeed!

** Or, at least, three of them were. One - the lead litigant, Arthur Taylor - actually isn't affected by the law change as he already was prevented from voting by the law before it was changed. Brown J flagged this as a potential problem for him when and if the issue goes to a substantive hearing (at para. 84).

Comments (12)

by Andrew Osborn on July 13, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Maybe I've missed the point, but it seems to me that the whole point of imprisonment is to remove or limit some of their rights. Specifically:

> The right of expression

> The right of association

> The right to freedom of movement

> The right to leave New Zealand

> The right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure

So having established those precedents, what's one more?

Oh - one more question: Are my taxes paying for this exercise?


by Andrew Geddis on July 13, 2014
Andrew Geddis

So having established those precedents, what's one more?

By that reasoning, of course, allowing prison officers to randomly execute any prisoner they choose isn't a problem, as it's simply removing "one more" of their rights. As would a law prohibiting prisoners from praying or singing hymns. As would a programme of testing new drugs on incarcerated persons.

The argument "we restrict some rights by putting people in prison, so we can restrict any others we like" is ... not strong.

by Nick Gibbs on July 13, 2014
Nick Gibbs

Does this mean that if Parliment decides to over turn the principle of Presumption of Innocence, which I think is also in the NZBOR, that I can't take them to court and have that right re-instated?

by Will de Cleene on July 13, 2014
Will de Cleene

Grundnorm trumps all. Just ask that Lord Cooke joker.

by Andrew Geddis on July 13, 2014
Andrew Geddis


Yes. The Supreme Court already has said so, in the case of R v Hansen (discussion here).

by Katharine Moody on July 13, 2014
Katharine Moody

Given this government's record;


I'd say the judiciary must step up .. they are our 'last stand' in terms of democratic respectability.

by BeShakey on July 14, 2014

The seperation between the parliament and the judiciary is a pretty fundamental pillar of our democracy, so I'd be pretty careful about saying that the judiciary 'must' stomp around on parliament's turf.

Besides which, the more you distrust the government (or are worried about what some future government might do) the more you should want to maintain that seperation. I'm sure the Queensland Bar Association would have some thoughts to offer the Law Society on the dangers of that seperation breaking down -

by Fentex on July 15, 2014

If our courts say they can in theory, but then demonstrate not in practice, perform a minor reproachment of government for denying fundemental rights to citizens that should be beyond alienation in any democracy I think a very strong argument is made that NZ is Constitutionally wanting.

It would seem to be proof that we would need a stronger foundation in our law for the protection of our rights than exists at present.

by Andrew Osborn on July 15, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Andrew: The argument "we restrict some rights by putting people in prison, so we can restrict any others we like" is ... not strong.

I agree.

But at the same time the argment that prisoners have the absolute right to vote because it's in the BOR is weakened by the precedent of their many rights already being taken away. It dilutes their claim by in my view.

by Andrew Geddis on July 15, 2014
Andrew Geddis

But at the same time the argment that prisoners have the absolute right to vote because it's in the BOR is weakened by the precedent of their many rights already being taken away. It dilutes their claim by in my view.

Why? How can limiting some sorts of rights (freedom of movement, freedom of association, etc) for penal purposes "weaken" a person's claims to any others (such as to vote, manifest religious belief, speak own language, not be tortured, etc). You'd have to identify why those first set of rights are limited, why those reasons are strong enough to justify limiting those rights, and how those reasons apply in just as strong a fashion in respect of the latter rights.

Remember - the burden is on you (or, rather, the State) to show why taking away the right to vote is justified. Prisoners don't have to do anything to justify having it!

by Andrew Osborn on July 17, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Andrew: Prisoners don't have to do anything to justify having it!

So why haven't they got it?

by Andrew Geddis on July 19, 2014
Andrew Geddis

So why haven't they got it?

Because of this - a bad law passed by Parliament that infringes on prisoners' rights without any demonstrable justification.

Put it this way. Imagine Parliament passed a law saying "people named Andrew may not write things on the interweb". That would have the concrete legal effect of preventing such persons from being able to write blog posts or comments on blog posts. But it would be silly to then say something like "Andrews must not have the right to write, because otherwise the law would let them do so - and if they want to be able to do so, then it really is up to them to explain why they should be allowed to." That's just not how "rights" work - people have rights, and its up to those who would limit/remove them to explain why these are being limited. And the fact a person is in prison doesn't make them any less a person who can claim such rights as of right ... it just means that there may be some justifications for limiting some of their rights that aren't applicable to those not in prison.

Whereupon the onus goes on those who think it is OK to limit their right to vote to say just why this is ... which is something entirely lacking in every one of your comments to date.

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