Coronavirus: Parliament's COVID-19 committee summonses Solicitor-General to reveal lockdown legal advice

Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee is summonsing New Zealand's Solicitor-General for the lockdown's legal advice, a move Simon Bridges has labelled as "unprecedented".

The Solicitor-General, a role currently held by Una Jagose QC, is the chief executive of Crown Law who provides legal advice to the Government and may appear for the Government in litigation or appellate court matters. She is subject only to the Attorney-General, the Crown's chief law officer, currently David Parker.

Bridges said on Wednesday that "in an unprecedented move", the committee had agreed to issues summonses to the Solicitor-General, the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster for the lockdown's legal advice. It's the first time the Solicitor-General has been summonsed by Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition and chair of the committee said it was "inexplicable" that the advice hadn't already been made public.

“The people of New Zealand have given up their freedoms for this lockdown. We all deserve to know what the legal basis was for that," Bridges said.

“New Zealanders should be proud of the efforts they’ve made during this lockdown but they also deserve to know whether the lockdown was legal."

Questions about the lockdown and the legality of enforcing it were raised again this week after emails were leaked to NZME revealing police were initially told by Crown Law they had little to no power to enforce the rules. That was until the Director-General of Health issued new guidelines under the Health Act. Other experts have previously suggested the Health Act is no longer fit for purpose.

"National has asked repeatedly and publicly for this information for the past five weeks," Bridges said.

"Serious concerns have also been raised by academics, lawyers and the Law Society."

Act Party leader David Seymour has also called for the legal advice's release.

"There is overwhelming public interest in seeing this information. The people deserve to know on what basis they have had their civil liberties restricted. The advice is particularly relevant for business owners who have been shut down by the Police and citizens who have been turned away at checkpoints or arrested," he said.

“In scrutinising the Government response to COVID-19, the Epidemic Response Committee represents the Parliament and New Zealanders. The Attorney-General, who has so far refused to release any information, must take this matter seriously."

New Zealand's lockdown is enabled by several pieces of legislation, such as the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, which allows the Prime Minister to activate special powers for medical officers under the Health Act 1965. Those powers allow people to be quarantined and can stop people leaving health districts until they are proven not to be infectious. 

Running complementary to that is the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002, under which a state of emergency can be declared, providing the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black with a range of powers, including to close premises and require arrivals into New Zealand be isolated.

Parker has previously said he is "satisfied" the Government followed the law.

"In terms of the position on legal professional privilege, there is nothing unusual or different happening here," Parker said before the Epidemic Response Committee in April.

"The Crown, like anyone else, is entitled to claim legal professional privilege in respect of the advice that it receives."