Opening Of Environment Court Mediation Centre
Hon Marion Hobbs
Opening Of Environment Court Mediation Centre, Auckland District Court, Wednesday Sept 27 3pm
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E nga Rangatira
E te Paepae tapu
Tena koutou katoa
His Honour Principal Judge Sheppard, members of the Judiciary, Commissioners, members of the legal profession, local and central government officials, guests.
My colleague Matt Robson, the Minister for Courts, is unable to be here with you today. When Matt asked me to stand in for him and open this wonderful new facility on his behalf, I said yes without any hesitation.
As Minister for the Environment, I am acutely aware of the central role the Environment Court plays in resolving issues arising from the Resource Management Act. I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of you all, the judiciary, the planning bar, planning experts, and court and local government officials. I am aware of the pressures you are under, as is my colleague Matt Robson. The Attorney-General, Margaret Wilson is also taking an interest in the workings of the Environment Court. I am regularly speaking with individuals and groups involved with the RMA. I know there are concerns with the increasing case list of the Court. I know delays impose real costs on business, local government and the community. I am also aware that the Court has already taken a number of steps to try and address the problem, including case management and regular callovers of cases. As has already been mentioned today, mediation, and this mediation centre, signal a way forward.
The Resource Management Act is a truly innovative piece of legislation. At its core is the concept of sustainability. Its ethos is enabling – it enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural well being.
Increasingly, with expensive legal resources trained on the process of the RMA is it any wonder that this law and its procedures have become so bound in litigation? Some of the litigation and resulting case law is of high value but much is a result of trying to protect vested interests of all sorts. When one looks through the case law and the investment this involves I become concerned about how much actually relates to environmental matters?
My vision for the environment starts with a well-informed community. Such a well-informed community begins at the citizen level and moves to the communities who have particular interests – environment organisations, iwi, business, developers – and then to those with responsibilities for the communities – local and central government.
In terms of resource management, part of achieving this vision is education. I am sure you have heard my predecessor state that you can’t legislate for good practice and this is one area that we both are in complete agreement. Having a good understanding about the processes of the RMA and its operation is an ongoing challenge. It’s not about amending the RMA to force a particular action. Certainly there are proposed changes that will assist in implementing best practice, such as further defining the time frame requirements of the Act and other process improvements. But largely good practice is a matter of the community understanding how to use the processes laid out in the Act to achieve the living standards they desire.
I am committed to ensuring all users and implementers of the RMA understand it. This has been happening and I want it to continue with a broader audience. This means that the local government councillors, local government staff, consultants, business, communities and citizens should all be aware and informed about the operation of the Act.
There are a number of training exercises underway targeted at ensuring all those who have a role to play in administering the Act are doing their job well. For example the NZPI have just run a series of workshops for councillors on hearings procedures under the RMA.
Also, my Ministry has begun a
national training programme on the section 32 cost benefit
test of the RMA for practitioners. All these initiatives
add to the process of having an educated set of users of the
Act. This has huge benefits including:
I am aware of the valuable efforts made in this direction by the Environment Court itself.
Another part of the solution is attracting capable people to the resource management profession to enlarge this relatively small group of lawyers, town planners, engineers and other experts. A larger group means more resources available to the Court for resolving the matters before it.
Having said that, I am not convinced that further resources are the only answer. They are certainly part of it. But we must work more smartly as well. Settlements reached by mediation rather than adversarial methods, in my view, are a large part of the solution.
I have said that the RMA is enabling. One particularly elegant aspect of the RMA is the built-in alternative dispute resolution process. Unlike other jurisdictions, the Environment Court is empowered by the RMA to refer matters for mediation by Commissioners. Which brings me to why we are here today.
While the Court’s case list is large, in reality only a small percentage of appeals will actually require hearing. We are all aware that often references are inter-linked, and achieving settlement in one area can lead to a cascade of settlements or withdrawals in other areas. The challenge for the Court and the administration is the early identification of those key cases, which lend themselves to mediation.
I am informed that last year, Commissioners sat for 116 days mediating 188 cases. This is up from 64 cases three years ago. Although mediation tends to be time-intensive, it is a cost-effective alternative to a full judicial hearing.
Successful mediation outcomes are assisted by friendly surroundings. It is important to create an environment where parties to disputes can meet and with the help of a mediator narrow the issues and ultimately reach a settlement. Putting parties at ease, away from the adversarial courtroom environment, was the impetus behind the development of these wonderful facilities.
When the civil jurisdiction administration vacated this area on the ground floor of New Zealand’s busiest courthouse, the innovative people of the Environment Court, led by Principal Judge Sheppard, seized the opportunity.
The result is a self-contained, purpose built mediation centre offering a reception and waiting area, a large meeting room, breakout rooms, an area for the Commissioner, and separate kitchen and ablutions areas. In the main meeting room, the furniture is flexible and can be arranged in a variety of ways to suit the mediator’s style. During the mediation, parties may wish to break and discuss matters. Comfortable breakout rooms are provided for this purpose. Being located on the ground floor allows mediations to continue outside normal business hours. And, you will be pleased to learn these facilities are made available to the parties at no cost.
I believe mediation is the way of the future in environmental dispute resolution. This mediation centre demonstrates the Government’s commitment to mediation as an increasingly important part of the resource management process. It also demonstrates the development of meaningful solutions by an innovative Bench and court administration. You are to be applauded for your efforts.
It is with great pleasure that I declare the Auckland Environment Court Mediation Centre open.
Tena koutou katoa