Law Reform in New Zealand

21 Pages Posted: 28 Dec 2017

See all articles by Geoff McLay

Geoff McLay

Victoria University of Wellington - Law Faculty

Date Written: December 19, 2017


Why should the international law reform community be interested in how New Zealanders do law reform, or how New Zealanders debate how law reform? This article argues that there are three principal reasons that New Zealand ought to be of interest.

1 A small place that does lots of reform, or at least thinks a lot about reform First, the very smallness of New Zealand (a population of 4.8 million) creates both opportunities and problems for law reform that do not necessarily exist in the same way in larger countries. Literature often focuses on the difficulties of reform in large legal systems, such as those is in Europe or North America, but smaller countries present issues that are worthy of study. New Zealand is a case study of how law reform can, and should, be done in smaller jurisdictions, as well as what cannot be done, or done only with difficulty.

2 A successful legal system Second, observers often see New Zealand as successful both in its respect for the rule of law and in the state of its law more generally. While there is some contrast between the helicopter view of a successful legal system and the angst of local commentators who claim that New Zealand is falling behind, that success ought to prick overseas attention as to how New Zealand accomplishes what it does.

3 A different kind of traditional Law Commission? Thirdly, while New Zealand has an independent Law Commission, as other Commonwealth countries do, there has been a distinct change of emphasis from an identity model to a process model of law reform. The identity model presents law reform as accomplished by a certain kind of body, while the process model focuses on the significance of the Commission's independence in the policy and law reform process. This process model of law reform claims not to remove politics from law reform, but rather to enable law reform even where politics might otherwise have prevented it. Moreover, focusing on the process rather than the identity of the body raises the prospect that the “law reform” process can be applied to subjects beyond technical "lawyer's law". This is a view that is most associated in New Zealand with Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who was the founder of the New Zealand Law Commission during his time as Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, and who served as president of the Law Commission from 2005 to 2010.

Keywords: Law Reform, New Zealand

Suggested Citation

McLay, Geoff, Law Reform in New Zealand (December 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Geoff McLay (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Law Faculty ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington 6140
New Zealand
64 4 4636320 (Phone)


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