Revising the law and keeping it up to date is an ongoing task. There is a great deal of pressure on the government’s legislative programme. Usually there are a hundred bills or more passed by the Parliament each year. Routine measures that will assist administration and introduce non-controversial changes nevertheless struggle for legislative attention. The introduction of the mixed-member proportional electoral system has increased the time taken to pass legislation, as the government often has to negotiate with other political parties to get its measures through.
The Law Commission’s functions
The Law Commission was established by the Law Commission Act 1985 with the following principal functions:
- to keep the law of New Zealand under review in a systematic way
- to make recommendations for the reform and development of the law of New Zealand
- to advise on the review of any aspect of the law of New Zealand conducted by any government department or organisation
- to advise the minister of justice on ways in which the law of New Zealand can be made as accessible as is practicable.
The Law Commission is independent of the executive government and is required by law to act independently in performing its statutory functions. It has the power to initiate proposals for the review, reform or development of any aspect of the law of New Zealand. It consults with the public.
The commissioners are judges or senior practising or academic lawyers (from the university law faculties) appointed for fixed terms of three or five years. The president must be a lawyer or a judge.
Dealing with cyber harassment
In December 2011 the Law Commission proposed that a new Communications Tribunal, to replace the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Press Council, could be set up to deal with malicious use of the internet as a publishing platform. It suggested that because young people in particular were vulnerable to cyber harassment, such a tribunal could regulate websites and grant takedown orders when content breached the law.
Law Commission reports
The Law Commission has produced many comprehensive reports leading to significant changes in the statute books. Within six months of receiving a report the government is obliged to table in Parliament a document that states whether it will adopt the Law Commission’s recommendations.
Important reports produced by the Law Commission in the 2000s and acted on by the government include:
- numerous reports on criminal law and criminal procedure, including abolition of the defence of provocation for murder, and a major revision of the law on search and surveillance
- a report recommending major changes to the law governing the sale of liquor that would aim to prevent harm resulting from alcohol
- a report recommending a new Land Transfer Act.
In 2011 the commission completed a five-year project on privacy that has resulted in multiple volumes and numerous recommendations for change.
More than 120 major reports had been produced by the Law Commission by the end of 2011. However, the tasks set out in its statute remain aspirational goals – New Zealand has large quantities of law.