Canterbury researchers seek firmer footing for ‘Disaster Law’

12 June 2019

Major quake aftershocks are not all seismic; they include legal, health, economic and social consequences that have previously come as a shock, according to two University of Canterbury law experts looking at Wellington’s situation.

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    UC Law Lecturer Dr Toni Collins and Professor John Hopkins and are addressing the question: how do we regulate to make Wellington more resilient?

Major quake aftershocks are not all seismic; they include legal, health, economic and social consequences that have previously come as a shock, according to two University of Canterbury law experts looking at Wellington’s situation.

Considerable effort and resources are being channelled into creating a more resilient Wellington in the aftermath of the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes. Lessons are being learned.

Two Associate Investigators of QuakeCoRE, the New Zealand Centre for Excellence in Seismic Resilience, at the University of Canterbury (UC) are members of the study Regulating for Resilience in an Earthquake Vulnerable City: the Wellington case.

UC Law Professor John Hopkins and UC Law Lecturer Dr Toni Collins found many unexpected legal issues. The law is not always clear and this can adversely affect people working to recover after a major disaster. Law reform is needed.

Their QuakeCoRE-funded project, Addressing Wellington Multi-Story Existing Buildings – Regulatory Solutions for Addressing Earthquake Vulnerable Commercial Buildings, poses the question: How do we regulate to make Wellington more resilient?

The interdisciplinary project, to be completed by the end of 2020, began with engineering, then social sciences, and now law.

“We’re mapping law around resilience and looking for methods to improve things for businesses and residents. Our focus is on multi-story buildings. We tend to consider whether a building is earthquake-vulnerable rather than earthquake-prone,” says Professor Hopkins.

“Law and Disasters is a new legal speciality in New Zealand. After the Christchurch quakes there was a lot of legal confusion which affected people’s ability to be resilient. The problem for Wellington is the existing buildings. We ask people: ‘Where do you want to be on the day after the disaster?’ We need to set up structures and incentives to get us to where we want to be,” he says.

“People are not always aware of the rules and vulnerability of their buildings. They think that by signing a lease they are signing up to a ‘safe’ building. Unfortunately, when buildings are assessed those buildings have not always had their non-structural elements included in the process, such as windows and décor.”

An example of the issues at play can be seen in the recent decision to suddenly close the Wellington Central Library because it was felt that people’s safety there could no longer be guaranteed when another earthquake hits. A decision to fix or demolish will need to be made and this will have multiple repercussions. Other buildings in that vicinity may be affected, as well as residents.

Dr Collins’ research focuses on the problems for commercial tenants and landlords after quakes, especially involving the central business district and the use of cordons, which stop people accessing dangerous buildings and other areas that may pose a risk to the public.

“How do we cordon the central business district in a way that will keep Wellington accessible and operational? What powers are required to do that and what happens when a state of emergency lapses? How do we protect the disabled, the elderly and children who also use the city. It’s important to be able to model what can be expected for particular groups?” says Dr Collins.

“Wellington has only two access points; both need to be kept enabled for the city to survive as a city after a major quake. Wellington’s geography puts the city’s survival in more doubt than was the case for Christchurch where outlying areas provided access around the red zone.”

The researchers say that among the legal issues that need further consideration are those concerning contracts, insurance, property, employment, education, crime and human rights.

Disasters hit different communities differently with existing discrimination and disadvantage often exacerbated. Women, the disabled, and the poor often come out worse. Tenants are usually worse affected than homeowners, for example. Those with financial resources can often escape either temporarily or permanently but those people in precarious employment often cannot.

Dr Collins and Professor Hopkins hope to avoid, minimise or mitigate legal issues by understanding the interconnected issues now and preparing our law so that it can provide efficient and effective solutions in the event Wellington suffers another major earthquake. The mistakes and confusion in the Christchurch case do not need to be repeated.

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