Roger writing the LAWmag
Jul 2011

Earthquake Law: Christchurch, New Zealand's Shake Chaos

There is no field manual on the continuation, interruption, suspension or emergency delivery of law and the justice system in the event of catastrophic natural disaster (see, for example, Disastrous Justice: Keeping the Four Horsemen At Bay). When a devastating 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand on February 22, at 12:51 pm, it was trial by error, if trial at all.

Earthquakes are déjà-vu in New Zealand, a hotbed of seismic activity. When Christchurch was hit by a 7.1, but less damaging earthquake on September 4, 2010, the inhabitants felt they had paid the piper and that their once-every-thousand-year earthquake troubles were behind them.

The earthquake territory includes the University of Canterbury School of Law, founded in 1873 in Christchurch. The Advanced Land Law lecture was in progress in the law building when the shake hit. The professor was just describing the concept of actual fraud when the building took the earthquake. The audio was posted to YouTube. The banging of objects and the screams of students is horrifying but it is dampened by the understatement of the professor at the end of the audio when she announces with Kiwi humour:

"This is the end of the lecture."

Christchurch EarthquakeNew Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, himself a native of Christchurch, later described it as:

"New Zealand's darkest day."

NZLawyer published a special issue but it is laden with useless condolence messages from commercial operators and advertisers. The president of the law society posted this platitude:

"Yesterday's catastrophic earthquake has shocked us all."

The Shake

From reporter Kip Brook, who survived the earthquake:

"This is a war zone; but no sign of the enemy. People crushed to death; people trapped; people missing. Friends are missing. People's lives shattered forever. Christchurch's latest earthquake just before 1pm yesterday is New Zealand's worst natural disaster."

Over one-hundred and seventy died in the earthquake, 100 alone in the collapsed Canterbury Television building.

The Hotel Grand Chancellor, Christchurch's largest building was seriously damaged, with the structural lines so warped that it looks like it is on the verge of collapse (it has since been permanently condemned and is schedule for demolition).

The fifty-year old Pyne Gould Corporation (PGC) building collapsed outright.

Clarendon Tower, a 17 story office tower, at the heart of Christchurch housed law firm upon law firm. While the structure did not crumble, it was seriously damaged and civil defense authorities immediately cordoned it off, and announced that it would take 10 months before tenants would be allowed back inside.

In New Zealand, it is the practice of law firms to serve as official archive of original deeds and wills. Digitized copies of legal documents helped in the recovery but so many originals were destroyed or inaccessible.

The Clarendon Tower housed hundreds of thousands of such essential documents, not to mention exhibits and other non-digitized documents, all held on behalf of clients of the law firms at the moment the quake hit. Duncan Cotterill and Cavell Leitch were just two of the bigger firms that faced the shake and the aftermath at Clarendon Tower.

Simpson Grierson was on the top floor and Anderson Lloyd on the 10th. One of the immediate casualties was the emergency stairwell trapping staff from both offices for a terrifying several hours before they could be rescued.

The law firm Cherry Kanniangara and Thomson took as much as they could carry from their damaged building and scrambled to new premises.

In the Forsyth Barr building was the law firm of GCA Lawyers. Using materials from a civil defense kit, they smashed a window and rappelled people down one by one to a parking level some 30 feet below, all caught by film crews in images shown around the world.

For Anderson Lloyd and CGA Lawyers, the actions of their law firm employees were nothing short of heroic.

After the dead and injured were rescued, an overwhelmed civil defense authority organized an essential property (including documents where applicable)  recovery service.

But it was a "take a number" system. And it was not just one office tower; some 75 were sealed, literally, with red tape. Civil defense authorities cordoned off a large red zone of condemned office and residential buildings in or near downtown Christchurch.

Chaos Omnipresent

Meanwhile, with bail hearings suspended, many got longer prison stays than may have been fair. Act of God or force majeure struck down countless contracts on the spot. Insurance companies refused all applications for new insurance. Buildings which escaped serious damage brushed off their supply and demand manuals as rent skyrocketed. Thousands of employees found their workplace shut down with the result that their employment income immediately ceased, especially those employed by small businesses without business interruption insurance. Vehicles were buried under the rubble of contorted parkades. Tenants found themselves without homes as disputes over responsibility for new premises erupting with landlords with no adjudication facilities available. Anybody with a house deal pending quickly demanded a new inspection.

As the residents of Christchurch know all too well, whoever, if anyone, controls our lives and deaths, does not always broadcast the moment. The earthquake itself killed almost two hundred; the trauma and stress of the aftermath took a particularly high toll. That meant that attrition continued and estates needed to be dealt with. But wills were destroyed or inaccessible and probate courts shut firm earthquake notice

An international economy waits for no one. Many clients took their legal work offshore, especially to their neighbour across the Tasman Sea, Australia, a scant 2,000km miles away. This led to a public appeal by New Zealand lawyers and accountants begging locals to be patient and continue to support local businesses.

But the devastation to law and order was everywhere. The land titles office was immediately closed down which left conveyancing files in crisis. Eventually, emergency registration services for Christchurch were temporarily reopened at Hamilton, hundreds of miles away.

Smack in the middle of the red zone: the heavily damaged Christchurch High Court, which soon had to also deal with significant flooding.

On March 3, chief High Court judge Helen Winkelmann wrote, in an open letter to New Zealand lawyers:

"The court will not be operating from the central city site for some time. Registry functions will not be housed there, and hearings will not occur in that court building for the foreseeable future."

More than a month after the earthquake, the judiciary announced other, urgent and interim measures. Filings normally done at Christchurch would be done at Wellington. A temporary court was set up in the suburb of Wigram.

The law society opened up an earthquake website: Sensing that even an earthquake could not keep the worst opportunists at bay, the law society president sent an email to all members urging restraint and tolerance and empathy for their colleagues.

Just as a haggard demolition crews began the emotional work of razing downtown, the city was hit again. On June 14, 2011 a smaller earthquake hit Christchurch. Any semblance of life returning to normal was quickly shattered. It was the kiss of death to the Grand Chancellor, the pinnacle of Christchurch's skyline for decades.

Perhaps the biggest economic casualty of the Christchurch earthquakes may be the catastrophic effect on the city's future. Politicians are putting the best spin they can on what appears to be a net migration away from Christchurch.

How Many More Christchurches?

There may be some bitter consolation and that is the significant amount of legal work that will be required to clean up the mess in Christchurch. Contrary to the armies of university student volunteer rescuers that marched through Christchurch neighborhoods immediately after the earthquake, it is the extremely rare lawyer that does not demand a high wage, except of course, those who advertise very limited pro bono services with one hand, with a retainer firmly gripped in the other.

Christchurch is yet another example: law and justice systems are not a segment of the economy that absorbs disaster well, except for lawyers who tend to have their workloads increase dramatically, mostly billable hours.

September 11 ... the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami ... Christchurch ...

It is mind-boggling how many examples of legal chaos are required before simple international standards are developed to deal with catastrophic natural disasters which devastate economies and to surgically  and temporarily relax key rules of law without adding to the partial anarchy of the crisis.

Where there's a will there's a way: emergency internationally uniform statutes can readily be developed to standardize the domestic and international response to litigation, probate and contract law messes they create, and to minimize the legal crisis which nature inflicts from time to time and only God knows where.

What might be holding this back is the enormous amount of legal services natural disasters generate.


Thank you so much to Kerrie Fenton, New Zealand law student, for her invaluable assistance in putting together this article and her personal advice: my earthquake kit now includes wine.

Posted in Current Events

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