When enforcement action can be taken

Enforcement action may be taken if someone:

  • breaches a rule in a plan, national environmental standard or regulations
  • breaches the conditions of a resource consent
  • breaches the requirements of an abatement notice, enforcement order or other compliance notice
  • uses water, air, the coastal marine area or the beds of waterbodies in a manner not authorised by a plan or consent.

Who can take enforcement action

Councils generally take action on non-compliance, but private individuals or organisations can also apply for an enforcement order and make a prosecution under the RMA. However, only enforcement officers (authorised by a council or the Environmental Protection Authority) can issue an infringement or abatement notice.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) also has enforcement powers under the RMA.

The EPA can:

  • hold its own RMA investigations if a council is not already involved in an active investigation
  • help councils with investigations in progress, with the agreement of the council
  • intervene in RMA cases and take the lead on an investigation and enforcement action.

Although councils are mainly responsible for enforcement, everyone can play a part. You can help by keeping an eye on things, and letting your council know if something doesn’t seem right, or even applying to the Environment Court for an enforcement order. If you are thinking of applying for an enforcement order, you should seek legal advice.

How enforcement decisions are made

When a council detects non-compliance with the RMA, it can choose to address this informally (for example, through education or a verbal warning) or take enforcement action, or a mixture of both.

Councils don’t take enforcement action every time they get a complaint or find out someone has been doing something to harm the environment.

When deciding how to respond, councils my take into account:

  • the actual and potential effects of the non-compliance on the environment, how sensitive the environment is and whether it is of particular significance to iwi
  • the nature of the offending, including whether the person had a history of offending, and any actions to remedy or mitigate the effects
  • legal considerations, including how the unlawful activity aligns with the purposes and principles of the RMA, and for prosecution, the level of alignment with the Solicitor-General’s Prosecution Guidelines
  • the desired outcomes, including the level of specific and general deterrence required, and whether the enforcement action is the most cost-effective method.

Types of enforcement action

There are a range of enforcement options, tailored to the type and severity of offending. The RMA provides enforcement tools that are either:

  • punitive – to deter or punish the offender
  • directive – to require someone to stop an activity or take an action.

The table below lists the enforcement actions set out in the RMA.

Table 1: Enforcement actions for responding to RMA non‑compliance

Enforcement action Description RMA section Penalty
Verbal or written direction Advice that a breach of the RMA has occurred (or may occur) and that the offending party must take or stop a particular action. Non-statutory tool None
Formal warning letter Informs a person/company that they have breached the RMA. It forms part of the history of non-compliance, which can be used to inform future enforcement, and as evidence if it goes to court. Non-statutory tool None
Water shortage direction Where there is a “serious temporary shortage of water”, regional and unitary councils may issue a direction to apportion, restrict or suspend the “taking, use, damming, or diversion of water” or “the discharge of any contaminant into water”. Section 329 Breach of the direction is a prosecutable offence under section 338(1) of the RMA.
Abatement notice A formal written direction  requiring a person to take or stop certain actions within a set time. Generally used when non-compliance has been detected and the offender needs to “avoid, remedy or mitigate” the damage to the environment. Sections 322–325B Breach of the notice is a prosecutable offence under section 338(1) of the RMA.
Infringement notice A written notice (and fee), which informs a person they have committed an offence under the RMA. No criminal convictions can be imposed. Sections 343A–343D; and regulations

Fees currently range between $300–$1000, as set out in Schedule 1 of the Resource Management (Infringement Offences) Regulations 1999


Fees can range up to $4000, as set out in regulations.

Enforcement order An order by the Environment Court requiring a person to take or stop certain actions within a set time, where the court believes the activity breaches, or is likely to breach, the RMA. Can be made to the Environment Court by any person. Sections 314–319 and 321

The Environment Court may direct the offender to pay costs to “avoid, remedy or mitigate” the damage to the environment.


Breach of the order is a prosecutable offence under section 338(1) of the RMA.

Interim enforcement order

Similar to an enforcement order and used when there is an urgent need.


Applications are usually dealt with by the Environment Court without a hearing or serving notice, although a hearing is scheduled. A council may obtain an order in 2–3 days if there is evidence (by affidavit) and a judge is available.

Section 320 (and 314–319 and 321 on enforcement orders) The Environment Court may direct the offender to pay costs to ‘avoid, remedy or mitigate’ the damage to the environment.
Excessive noise direction Issued if an enforcement officer believes the noise is excessive. It directs the occupier, or anyone who appears responsible for the noise, to immediately reduce it to a reasonable level. Sections 326–328 The excessive noise direction does not carry a penalty, but breach of the direction is a prosecutable offence under 338(2)(a) of the RMA.

Establishes the guilt or innocence of an accused party and, if necessary, results in a sanction by the courts.


Administered within the criminal jurisdiction and offences carry criminal penalties. RMA prosecutions are considered in the district court by judges who also hold office as Environment Court judges.[1]


Charges must be filed in the court within 12 months of “the time when the contravention giving rise to the document first becomes known, or should have become known”.[2]

Section 338. Other sections are also relevant.

Depending on which RMA section is breached, the court can impose varied maximum fine levels on conviction.


For individuals, most offences have penalties of a fine not exceeding $300,000 or a sentence of imprisonment not exceeding two years.


For companies and other entities, most offences have a maximum penalty of a fine not exceeding $600,000.

[1] Resource Management Act 1991, Section 309(3).
[2] Resource Management Act 1991, Section 338(4). 

Other tools

Emergency powers and applying for an Environment Court declaration (as detailed below) are two options that are not strictly enforcement tools, but it is useful to be aware of them.

Emergency works

In an emergency, councils and some other authorities can do work (or require someone else to) to prevent, remove the cause of, or fix any adverse effect arising from an activity – including adverse effects that are likely to happen. Council officers might go on to a site and direct someone to do something to help the situation, or they may even take over machinery themselves to fix or improve the problem.

Under the RMA, emergencies include sudden events causing or likely to cause loss of life, injury or serious damage to property. Other situations include when something must be done immediately to stop damage to the environment, such as the discharge of a contaminant (for example, oil), when the person responsible is unable or unwilling to fix it immediately.

When a council or other authority needs to use these emergency powers, it can act without first obtaining resource consent (if it would normally be required). However, it must apply for resource consent later, within a set time.

The council can recover the costs of emergency works on private land from the person who caused the problem. If they are not recovered within 20 working days, the council can seek an enforcement order for the costs.

Application for a declaration

A declaration is a statement by the Environment Court clarifying legal matters. It might be issued before an abatement notice or enforcement order to help a council draft these orders.

A declaration can clarify:

  • whether an activity goes against the RMA, a rule in a district or regional plan, a condition of resource consent or a designation
  • whether an activity is permitted, controlled, discretionary, non‑complying or prohibited (the ‘activity status’)
  • whether an activity breaches the duty to avoid unreasonable noise, or the duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse effects on the environment
  • any other matter relating to enforcement of the RMA.

Any person can apply to the Environment Court for a declaration. If you are considering applying, seek legal advice and be aware that if you are unsuccessful, the Environment Court can award costs against you.

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