Environment breaches go unpunished

The New Zealand Herald |

Fewer than a hundred prosecutions are carried out under New Zealand’s main environmental law each year, despite thousands of breaches.

Now a legal researcher is investigating whether the 27-year-old Resource Management Act (RMA) is having the deterrent effect it should.

University of Canterbury College of Business and Law doctoral student Mark Wright said it was striking that the same system used to punish assailants and burglars is also used to punish people who have broken RMA rules.

Equally, from his experience as a lawyer prosecuting environmental non-compliance cases, Wright knows the system can play out substantially differently in RMA cases.

“There is a difference between the law itself and how it works in practice,” he said.

“There are thousands – if not tens of thousands – of breaches of the RMA every year, yet under 100 prosecutions a year.”

Further, he said, every council had a different approach.

“Criminal law can be a very effective deterrent as it can result in large fines and, in extreme cases, individuals being sent to prison, but it’s also a very expensive, time-consuming process.”

Some smaller councils would never consider a prosecution, he said.

Wright also planned to study whether it was even appropriate for RMA breaches to be criminal offences.

He would also look at how other countries sanction breaches of environmental law.

Environmental policy analyst Dr Marie Brown, of The Catalyst Group, said fewer than 100 prosecutions across 78 agencies was “undeniably minimalist”.

“I would suggest part of the underlying issue here is that some people regard impacts on the environment as the norm and think the idea of criminal culpability is almost nonsensical,” she said.

“That’s more about people not regarding the environment as being very important, than the punishment necessarily being inappropriate.”

Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor felt there was a need for a dedicated, independent national enforcement agency.

The Government is seeking to address compliance woes with a new RMA oversight unit, with $3 million in funding announced last month.

Environment Minister David Parker was overseeing a wider reform of the RMA which would consider changes requested by councils themselves, such as extending the limitation period for prosecutions from six months to 12 months.

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