The Environment Court, formerly called the Planning Tribunal, was constituted under the Resource Management Amendment Act 1996.
The Environment Court is single national court which sits in a number of courthouses in different parts of the country. Judges are permanently located in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. Environment Judges from the three main centres go on circuit to other locations as needed. The work of the court is organised nationally by the Principal Environment Judge to ensure a match between judicial resources and work.
The Court is a specialist court and as such, sits outside the pyramid for courts of general jurisdiction. Appeals from the Environment Court can be made (on a point of a law only) to the High Court.
Environment Judges may sit alone to hear some kinds of cases, but for appeals about Plans and resource consents, the Court is usually comprised of one Environment Judge and two Environment Commissioners. It may however be comprised of one Judge and one Commissioner. Or in major cases, one Judge and three Commissioners.
Parties before the Court are usually represented by lawyers, but anyone may appear in person, or be represented by an agent who is not a lawyer.
The Court is not bound by the strict rules of evidence and its proceedings are often less formal than the general courts. Most of the Court's work involves public interest questions.
Because of the complexity of the subject matter of most proceedings, oral decisions are seldom given, and decisions are usually reserved - meaning that a written judgment is delivered at a later date.
Most of the Court's work involves issues arising under the Resource Management Act, largely dealing with appeals about the contents of regional and district statements and plans; and appeals arising out of applications for resource consents. The consents applied for may be for a land use, for a subdivision, a coastal permit, a water permit, or a discharge permit; or a combination of those.
The Court's work also includes:
- Designations authorising public works such as energy projects, hospitals, schools, prisons, sewage works, refuse landfills, fire stations, major roads and bypasses; and also major private projects, for example, dairy factories, tourist resorts, timber mills and shopping centres.
- Classification of waters, water permits for dams and diversions, taking of geothermal fluids, discharges from sewage works, underground mines; maximum and minimum levels of lakes and flows of rivers, and minimum quality standards; and water conservation orders.
- Land subdivision approvals and conditions, development levies, car parking contributions, reserve contributions, development levy fund distributions, road upgrading contributions, regional roads, limited access roads, and stopping roads.
- Environmental effects of prospecting, exploration, and mining, including underground, open pit and alluvial mining.
- Enforcement proceedings (including interim enforcement orders), declarations about the legal status of environmental activities and instruments, existing and proposed, and appeals against abatement notices.