In March 2022, a prominent Māori landowner and advocate for tribal climate concerns took a significant step by bringing a case before the High Court of New Zealand. The central argument of the case was that the government had violated fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life and minority rights, due to its inadequate response to climate change. The plaintiff’s core contention was that successive governments had consistently failed to address the severe consequences of climate change, with a particular emphasis on its disproportionate impact on the Māori community.
Initially, the case centred on a single cause of action, which involved the government’s breach of duty to take all necessary steps to reduce New Zealand emissions and actively protect the plaintiff and his descendants from the adverse effects of climate change. Later, following a court order issued by Justice Johnston in May 2020, the plaintiff expanded the case to include two additional distinct causes of action. These additional claims were based on alleged violations of the rights to life and the rights of minorities as outlined in sections 8 and 20 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the government’s failure to act in accordance with its obligations as stipulated in the Treaty of Waitangi (one of New Zealand’s founding documents, agreed in 1840 between the British Crown and Māori leaders). The Court eventually dismissed all three claims.
The plaintiff’s claim was multi-faceted, asserting that the government’s actions, or lack thereof, constituted violations of human rights, particularly the right to life and minority rights, with a focus on the Māori population. The claim included allegations concerning the breach of duty, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the Treaty of Waitangi.
On July 15, 2022, the Court rendered a decision in favour of the government, dismissing all three claims presented by the plaintiff. The Court found the plaintiff’s common law duty of care claim untenable, reasoning that it failed to define specific legal obligations and exceeded the boundaries of incremental development of new duties. Moreover, the Court asserted that the creation of an effective remedy, such as court-monitored monitoring, would necessitate an institutional expertise, democratic participation, and accountability beyond the capabilities of the court process alone.
The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s assertion regarding the right to life, deeming it untenable due to the absence of substantial evidence indicating a ‘real and identifiable’ threat to individuals or groups. Instead, the Court viewed climate change as a general threat impacting all New Zealanders due to its broad-reaching consequences. The Court further noted that the plaintiff’s argument concerning the breach of minority rights lacked merit since the relevant regulations primarily prohibited the Crown from infringing upon minority rights rather than imposing positive duties.
Additionally, the Court clarified that claims based on the Treaty and fiduciary obligations were not valid, as they hinged on the same general duty initially put forth in the first cause of action, which the Court had already rejected as unsound. The Court emphasized that the plaintiff’s contention that this duty was owed exclusively to the Māori population, rather than the wider public, further undermined its validity.
The case documents are accessible via Climate Case Chart: Click here.
Status of the case:
Michael John Smith v. The Attorney-General,  NZHC 1693 (15 July 2022), The High Court of New Zealand.
20 October 2023.