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Research papers, The University of Auckland Library

In September 2010 and February 2011 the Canterbury region of New Zealand was struck by two powerful earthquakes, registering magnitude 7.1 and 6.3 respectively on the Richter scale. The second earthquake was centred 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of Christchurch (the region’s capital and New Zealand’s third most populous urban area, with approximately 360,000 residents) at a depth of five kilometres. 185 people were killed, making it the second deadliest natural disaster in New Zealand’s history. (66 people were killed in the collapse of one building alone, the six-storey Canterbury Television building.) The earthquake occurred during the lunch hour, increasing the number of people killed on footpaths and in buses and cars by falling debris. In addition to the loss of life, the earthquake caused catastrophic damage to both land and buildings in Christchurch, particularly in the central business district. Many commercial and residential buildings collapsed in the tremors; others were damaged through soil liquefaction and surface flooding. Over 1,000 buildings in the central business district were eventually demolished because of safety concerns, and an estimated 70,000 people had to leave the city after the earthquakes because their homes were uninhabitable. The New Zealand Government declared a state of national emergency, which stayed in force for ten weeks. In 2014 the Government estimated that the rebuild process would cost NZ$40 billion (approximately US$27.3 billion, a cost equivalent to 17% of New Zealand’s annual GDP). Economists now estimate it could take the New Zealand economy between 50 and 100 years to recover. The earthquakes generated tens of thousands of insurance claims, both against private home insurance companies and against the New Zealand Earthquake Commission, a government-owned statutory body which provides primary natural disaster insurance to residential property owners in New Zealand. These ranged from claims for hundreds of millions of dollars concerning the local port and university to much smaller claims in respect of the thousands of residential homes damaged. Many of these insurance claims resulted in civil proceedings, caused by disputes about policy cover, the extent of the damage and the cost and/or methodology of repairs, as well as failures in communication and delays caused by the overwhelming number of claims. Disputes were complicated by the fact that the Earthquake Commission provides primary insurance cover up to a monetary cap, with any additional costs to be met by the property owner’s private insurer. Litigation funders and non-lawyer claims advocates who took a percentage of any insurance proceeds also soon became involved. These two factors increased the number of parties involved in any given claim and introduced further obstacles to resolution. Resolving these disputes both efficiently and fairly was (and remains) central to the rebuild process. This created an unprecedented challenge for the justice system in Christchurch (and New Zealand), exacerbated by the fact that the Christchurch High Court building was itself damaged in the earthquakes, with the Court having to relocate to temporary premises. (The High Court hears civil claims exceeding NZ$200,000 in value (approximately US$140,000) or those involving particularly complex issues. Most of the claims fell into this category.) This paper will examine the response of the Christchurch High Court to this extraordinary situation as a case study in innovative judging practices and from a jurisprudential perspective. In 2011, following the earthquakes, the High Court made a commitment that earthquake-related civil claims would be dealt with as swiftly as the Court's resources permitted. In May 2012, it commenced a special “Earthquake List” to manage these cases. The list (which is ongoing) seeks to streamline the trial process, resolve quickly claims with precedent value or involving acute personal hardship or large numbers of people, facilitate settlement and generally work proactively and innovatively with local lawyers, technical experts and other stakeholders. For example, the Court maintains a public list (in spreadsheet format, available online) with details of all active cases before the Court, listing the parties and their lawyers, summarising the facts and identifying the legal issues raised. It identifies cases in which issues of general importance have been or will be decided, with the expressed purpose being to assist earthquake litigants and those contemplating litigation and to facilitate communication among parties and lawyers. This paper will posit the Earthquake List as an attempt to implement innovative judging techniques to provide efficient yet just legal processes, and which can be examined from a variety of jurisprudential perspectives. One of these is as a case study in the well-established debate about the dialogic relationship between public decisions and private settlement in the rule of law. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Hazel Genn, Owen Fiss, David Luban, Carrie Menkel-Meadow and Judith Resnik, it will explore the tension between the need to develop the law through the doctrine of precedent and the need to resolve civil disputes fairly, affordably and expeditiously. It will also be informed by the presenter’s personal experience of the interplay between reported decisions and private settlement in post-earthquake Christchurch through her work mediating insurance disputes. From a methodological perspective, this research project itself gives rise to issues suitable for discussion at the Law and Society Annual Meeting. These include the challenges in empirical study of judges, working with data collected by the courts and statistical analysis of the legal process in reference to settlement. September 2015 marked the five-year anniversary of the first Christchurch earthquake. There remains widespread dissatisfaction amongst Christchurch residents with the ongoing delays in resolving claims, particularly insurers, and the rebuild process. There will continue to be challenges in Christchurch for years to come, both from as-yet unresolved claims but also because of the possibility of a new wave of claims arising from poor quality repairs. Thus, a final purpose of presenting this paper at the 2016 Meeting is to gain the benefit of other scholarly perspectives and experiences of innovative judging best practice, with a view to strengthening and improving the judicial processes in Christchurch. This Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association in New Orleans is a particularly appropriate forum for this paper, given the recent ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the plenary session theme of “Natural and Unnatural Disasters – human crises and law’s response.” The presenter has a personal connection with this theme, as she was a Fulbright scholar from New Zealand at New York University in 2005/2006 and participated in the student volunteer cleanup effort in New Orleans following Katrina.