High Court dismisses charge brought by WorkSafe against NZ Defence Force

HSWA exempts certain military operations and training

High Court dismisses charge brought by WorkSafe against NZ Defence Force

The New Zealand High Court’s recent decision in New Zealand Defence Force v. District Court of New Zealand & WorkSafe New Zealand, [2022] NZHC 3559, provides important guidance on the extent to which dangerous activities by New Zealand’s Armed Forces may be exempted from health and safety laws.

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) sought to have the charge dismissed under s. 147 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011, on the basis that Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) did not apply to the training. This is because s. 7 of HSWA provides the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) the ability to declare certain activities by the armed forces to be “operational activities.” NZDF operational activities are exempt from HSWA.

The declaration in question exempted “Counter Terrorism Response”, including “collective training to achieve operational level of capability for Counter Terrorism Response undertaken by members of the Armed Forces.”

The District Court declined NZDF’s application on the basis that the declaration did not apply to the training, because the training was not to achieve an “operational level of capability” and, in any event, the declaration only applied to Counter Terrorism Response within New Zealand, whereas the training concerned a potential overseas response.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 placed several new obligations and consequences for breaches on employers.

The judicial review

In response, NZDF applied to the High Court for judicial review of the District Court’s decision, arguing it was afflicted by several errors of law relating to the interpretation and application of Armed Forces doctrine. This was an unorthodox step, as judicial review is not usually available in respect of pre-trial decisions in criminal matters except in rare cases involving jurisdictional errors.

In response, WorkSafe New Zealand argued the Declaration itself was unlawful - not an argument advanced before the District Court.  In consequence, the focus of the judicial review was strictly on the lawfulness of the declaration.

Assessing the lawfulness of secondary legislation - which the declaration is - involves a three-step test: analysing the provision under which the regulation is made to ascertain the scope of the regulation-making power, determining the meaning of the regulation, and deciding whether the regulation complies with the empowering provision.

While HSWA is a safety-focused statute, the High Court noted it cannot apply entirely to the Armed Forces as they exist to do “dangerous things in dangerous environments, in New Zealand and overseas", which requires training for those activities. This is reflected in s. 7 of HSWA which automatically exempts certain operational activities, including certain training, from the Act.

Parliament intended HSWA to apply to members of the Armed Forces so far as it does not prejudice the defence of New Zealand and a declaration may be made under s. 7 of the HSWA to exempt members who carry out operational activities to exempt activities not already listed in s. 7 where doing so is consistent with that purpose.

WorkSafe’s argument that the declaration’s reference to “Counter Terrorism Response” was “hopelessly vague and inappropriately broad, disconnected to legitimate purpose” and could not sensibly be read down to mean “Counter Terrorism operations” was rejected by the High Court. The High Court considered that, while some background knowledge is needed to understand the terminology and the context in which those terms are used, the wording is not “unacceptably broad or vague” because the declaration must “after all… be understood, and applied, by members of the Armed Forces.”

In making a declaration, CDF is permitted to use terms that have a particular meaning for members of the Armed Forces, to be understood and applied by the Armed Forces. It follows that the court determined that the Declaration was within the purpose of the delegated power and lawful. Accordingly, the District Court’s decision was quashed.

The charge was ultimately dismissed in open court on 2 March 2023.

A workplace death and two serious accidents saw three companies hit with serious fines.

Key takeaways

This decision demonstrates the high threshold WorkSafe must reach when satisfying the court of a breach of duty under the HSWA when laying charges against the Armed Forces in respect of training for NZDF operational activities. While HSWA is intended to apply to members of the Armed Forces, this is only in so far that it “does not prejudice the defence of New Zealand.”

While serious health and safety-related accidents are deeply regrettable and members of the Armed Forces are required to minimise safety risks, NZDF operations are inherently dangerous and the court has recognised that the NZDF exists to do “dangerous things” and “to train effectively to do dangerous (sometimes, very dangerous) things, or to operate in dangerous (sometimes, very dangerous) environments, the training itself will have inherent dangers.”

As such, exempting counter terrorism response from HSWA fit “comfortably within the intention of Parliament that” health and safety legislation did not prejudice the defence of New Zealand.

Sally McKechnie, along with Mike Mercer and Tim Bremner, acted for NZDF, advising on strategy for responding to the District Court’s decision. Sally and Tim appeared in the judicial review. Mike appeared in the successful application to dismiss in the High Court, along with instructing counsel Colonel James Kennedy-Good.

Sally is a partner leading the public law and government practice at Simpson Grierson in Wellington. Mike is a senior associate specializing in employment and health and safety at Simpson Grierson in Wellington. Special thanks to Tim for his assistance in writing this article.

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