Reading from a Palimpsest

The Supreme Court of New Zealand holds that declarations of inconsistency are available when Parliament disregards the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act

I have previously written about the litigation concerning the power of New Zealand courts to make formal declarations to the effect that an Act of Parliament is inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This litigation has now reached its conclusion with the New Zealand Supreme Court’s decision in Attorney-General v Taylor, [2018] NZSC 104. The Court holds, by a bare 3-2 majority, that this power does indeed exist. The decision is interesting for what the judges say, what they suggest, and what they do not say; at least from a theoretical perspective, it might be of some interest to Canadians, as well as New Zealanders.

The case concerns a 2010 statute that disenfranchised prisoners serving sentences of less than three years. (Longer-term prisoners were already disenfranchised by then, and the consistency of denying them the ability to vote with the Bill of Rights was not in issue.) The Attorney-General, having told Parliament that this statute was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act before its enactment, conceded the inconsistency, but denied the ability of the courts to issue a formal declaration to the effect that such an inconsistency existed. He had lost at both the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

There are three sets of reasons: what might be described as a quasi-majority opinion by Justice Ellen France, joined by Justice Glazebrook; a concurring opinion by Chief Justice Elias, who largely shares Justice Ellen France’s approach (hence my labelling the latter a quasi-majority); and a dissent by Justice O’Regan, joined by Justice William Young. (For the purposes of writing about New Zealand, I shall follow the local convention of mentioning the first name of a judge to distinguish her or him from a colleague—not necessarily from the same court—who shares that judge’s surname.)

Justice Ellen France starts from the well-established proposition that, even though the Bill of Rights Act contains no provision authorizing remedies for its breach (equivalent, say, to section 24 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), “in order for the Bill of Rights to be effective, the courts had to provide remedies for breaches”. [29] For Justice Ellen France, declarations of inconsistency are just an additional remedy that can serve this purpose. There would need to be “statutory language” to prevent the courts from granting this particular remedy; [41] in its absence, they can do so. Justice Ellen France points out that, by its own terms, the Bill of Rights Act applies to Parliament, and that while it explicitly prevents the courts from refusing to apply inconsistent legislation, the specificity of the provision doing so suggests that other remedies against inconsistent statutes are not categorically excluded.

Moreover, Justice Ellen France rejects the Crown’s submission that legislation inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act effectively changes the contents of the rights the latter “affirms”, and thus cannot be regarded as inconsistent with it. Rather, “the Bill of Rights remains as the standard or palimpsest albeit Parliament has exercised its power to legislate inconsistently with that standard”. [46] Justice Ellen France also rejects the argument that a declaration should not be made since it is inconsistent with the judicial function and it will have no further consequences. A declaration “provides formal confirmation” of the “rights and status” of the person to whom it is granted, of his or her legal position, even in the absence of any further relief. (On this point, Justice Ellen France refers to the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in Mikisew Cree First Nation v. Canada (Governor General in Council), 2018 SCC 40.) In any case, a declaration provides vindication for the infringed right, and might be useful should the matter be revisited by an international instance or by Parliament itself.

That said, Justice Ellen France pointedly explains that, while “the Court of Appeal canvassed the relationship between the political and judicial branches of government and the role of the higher courts under the New Zealand constitution”, she does not “undertake a similar exercise”. The purpose of the declaration is to provide such vindication as can be provided consistently with the Bill of Rights Act to the person whose rights have been infringed—not to goad or guide Parliament. While the Court of Appeal had embraced the view that declarations were part of a constitutional dialogue between the legislative and the judicial branches of government, no judge of the Supreme Court so much as mentions the word “dialogue” in his or her reasons.

As noted above, Chief Justice Elias largely agrees with Justice Ellen France. In addition, she emphasises the courts’ inherent jurisdiction (recognized by statute) to “administer the law”, and their statutory power to declare what the law is even if they cannot grant any additional relief. The Chief Justice also stresses “the fundamental nature of the enacted rights (declared as such in the legislation)”, [102] and says that while Parliament is free to legislate in disregard of these rights, their scope can only be modified by an amendment to the Bill of Rights Act, not merely “by inconsistent action”. [103] Indeed, the declaration of inconsistency is address “to those whose rights are affected”, instead of “serving “to assist Parliament in its function, as the Court of Appeal suggested”, [107] a position with which Justice Ellen France expresses her agreement (n87).

The majority judges leave a number of significant issues unresolved—notably that of just when a declaration, which is a discretionary remedy, ought to be granted in response to an infringement of a right protected by the Bill of Rights Act. But they do not endorse the Court of Appeal’s suggestion that formal declarations should be a last resort. While they provide little guidance beyond that, this suggests that declarations may now become a relatively unexotic feature of New Zealand’s constitutional landscape.

Justice O’Regan is none too pleased. He accepts “that effective remedies should be available for breaches of the Bill of Rights Act”. [124] The question, though, is whether a standalone declaration of inconsistency can be such a remedy. It is one thing for a court to point out, in the course of deciding other issues, that a statute is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act — this has been done before; it is another to address the question of inconsistency if it is the only issue between the parties, and when nothing else follows an affirmative answer.

In such circumstances, Justice O’Regan says, there simply isn’t anything for the courts to do. Although the Bill of Rights Act provides that it applies to Parliament, it also prevents the courts from refusing to apply inconsistent legislation, and thus is not truly a

limitation on Parliament’s power to legislate. It is at least arguable that to the extent that there is a breach of the Bill of Rights resulting from the passing of inconsistent legislation, it is not of a character for which the courts are required to fashion a civil remedy. After all [the Bill of Rights Act] removes the only truly effective remedy from consideration. [133]

In any case, the bare declaration of inconsistency might not even count as a “remedy” at all, let alone an “effective” one. Justice O’Regan worries that such a declaration “may be simply ignored, with the consequential danger of the erosion of respect for the integrity of the law and the institutional standing of the judiciary”. [134] He is also concerned about “the considerable expenditure in money and resources” [143] that might result from what he sees as pointless litigation about abstract questions of consistency with the Bill of Rights Act. And, after all,

We have had the Bill of Rights Act now for 28 years and a declaration has never been made. … It can hardly be said that this has undermined the objective of the Bill of Rights Act to affirm, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in New Zealand. [144]

I don’t think that Justice O’Regan is right about this. He sees the matter in absolute terms: in the absence of declarations of inconsistency, the Bill of Rights Act has already provided some level of protection for rights and freedoms; at the same time, even if declarations are available, the level of protection will remain low, since “the only truly effective remedy”, which is to say invalidation of inconsistent legislation, is still off the table. The majority, by contrast, approach the matter in relative terms. For Justice Ellen France and the Chief Justice, what matters is that the availability of declarations will improve the protections provided by the Bill of Rights Act. Considering that essentially symbolic remedies exist elsewhere—for example, very low damages awards that are supposed to “vindicate” rights violated by the executive—the view that another such remedy constitutes a real reinforcement of rights-protection is, I think, more coherent with the big picture of public law.

The majority are also right to reject the Attorney-General’s arguments based on implied repeal of the Bill of Rights Act by inconsistent legislation. Although neither Justice Ellen France nor the Chief Justice raise this point, in my view the interpretive role of the Bill of Rights Act—section 6 of which provides that “[w]herever an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning”—strongly suggests that it must have a meaning independent both of prior and of subsequent legislation. (Of course, legislation that explicitly amends the Bill of Rights is possible, and only requires a simple majority in the House of Representatives to pass; but the parliamentary majority must, nevertheless, at least be willing to go to the trouble of enacting it).

Justice Ellen France’s palimpsest metaphor is apt. Legislation inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act adds another layer to the pages of the statute book, but they do not fully erase the rights and freedoms inscribed underneath them. Depending on the purpose for which one reads the statute book, one must sometimes focus on the inconsistent statute (applying it notwithstanding the inconsistency) and sometimes on the Bill of Rights Act (when ascertaining and declaring the inconsistency), but both layers continue to exist.

Speaking of metaphors, I think that the majority do well not to follow the Court of Appeal’s embrace of the “constitutional dialogue” theory. In an article published in the New Zealand Universities Law Review, I argued that, despite its superficial attractiveness as a means to address a “majoritarian malaise”—the worry about a  sovereign Parliament’s ability to define or deny the rights of minorities—, this theory is not well-suited to the constitutional context of New Zealand (or any polity that adheres to Parliamentary sovereignty. It makes little sense to speak of dialogue when one of the supposed interlocutors is free to simply ignore what the other has to say, as a sovereign Parliament is free to ignore the courts’ pronouncements about rights.

I concluded that article by writing that

New Zealand’s constitution is one that makes Parliament supreme, and the courts cannot mitigate this fact. They can only point out the abuses of this supremacy that sometimes occur, and they will do so more clearly and with more force if they do not pretend that what they are faced with is a provisional, revisable opinion stated as part of a conversation among equals rather than an abuse of power.  (917)

This is what the Supreme Court has done. So much the better.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Reading from a Palimpsest”

  1. Overseas readers also might like to note that the Supreme Court’s decision was issued against the backdrop of a firm Government commitment to give declarations of inconsistency a statutory footing (by amending the NZ Bill of Rights Act to allow for them), as well as create a new statutory obligation for Parliament to reconsider any legislation declared to be so inconsistent. I wonder if this may not have coloured the majority’s reasoning, in that there was no need for it to wax lyrical about constitutional roles when Parliament is about to act to confirm this?

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