The Environment Court is a specialist court operating under the RMA. It has the same powers as the District Court, and has three main functions.

1. Appeals

When someone disagrees with a decision (usually by a local council) that affects the environment, they may be able to appeal to the Environment Court. A wide range of appeals can be lodged with the Environment Court. These include appeals on:

  • resource consents
  • proposed district and regional plans or plan changes
  • proposed regional policy statements
  • designations
  • heritage protection orders
  • recommendations for water conservation orders.

When the court hears an appeal it must have regard to the council’s decision (or, sometimes, the decision of the requiring authority or report of a special tribunal), although the court is not bound by this.

If the council has followed a streamlined or freshwater planning process, the court’s role will be different from its standard role, and the rights of appeal will be more limited.

2. Hearing and deciding significant applications

Local councils make most decisions under the RMA, and the vast majority of decisions are on applications for resource consent. However, sometimes applications are decided in the first instance by the Environment Court, rather than the local council.

This can happen for different reasons. Some applications may be directly referred to the court, if the applicant and the council agree. Or the Minister for the Environment may decide that the application concerns a proposal of national significance, and can refer it to the Environment Court for a decision.

Direct referrals

Matters that can be directly referred to the court are resource consent applications, applications to change consent conditions, and notices of requirement.

For a direct referral, the applicant must apply to the council within five days of the time that submissions close, and the council will decide whether to grant the request. Although these applications may not be of national significance, they are generally so complex or large-scale that the council’s decision would likely be appealed and they would end up in the Environment Court anyway.

When the Minister for the Environment refers a proposal of national significance to the Environment Court for a decision, many factors are considered first. These factors include whether the proposal is of widespread public concern or interest, or whether it involves a significant use of natural and physical resources and/or is likely to affect a structure, feature, place or area of national significance.

3. Enforcement and other applications

The Environment Court may issue an enforcement order directing a person or an organisation that is causing a nuisance or environmental problem to fix it.

It may hear an appeal from someone who has received an abatement notice from the council, warning them that they are contravening (breaching) the RMA and requiring them to take a certain action or to stop an action.

Sometimes, the court receives an application for a declaration (a particular type of decision). For example, if there are different views on plan rules and how to interpret them or if someone has breached the RMA’s restrictions on participation by trade competitors.

The court can hear a challenge from a landowner that a plan provision will mean they can no longer reasonably use their land. The court can direct that the rule is removed or changed or the council acquire the land under the Public Works Act 1981.

The court can hold an inquiry into the report of a special tribunal on a water conservation order. The court receives and hears submissions, then recommends to the Minister for the Environment whether to accept or reject the tribunal’s report.

Powers of the Environment Court

When fulfilling these three functions, the Environment Court has the power to:

  • direct councils to make changes to their policy statements or plans
  • direct councils to review resource consents that have been granted
  • confirm, amend, or cancel decisions on applications for resource consents and designations
  • stay (suspend) or confirm abatement notices
  • make or decline to make declarations, and make or decline to make enforcement orders
  • award costs to one or other of the parties involved
  • direct the appellant (the person lodging the appeal) to make a deposit to pay for legal costs in case they lose the appeal.

Court locations

The Environment Court registries are in Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland. However, to ensure that it is accessible, the court holds sittings as required throughout the country. These usually take place as close as possible to the site that the case is concerned with.

For full details, see Contacts.

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