COVID-19 law allowing warrantless police searches faces 'post-enactment review'

The controversial COVID-19 law passed earlier this week allowing warrantless police searches will now face a "post-enactment review". 

Labour MP and Attorney-General David Parker announced on Friday the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, which set the legal framework for alert level 2, has been referred to a select committee. 

The legislation faced swift backlash from the Opposition, citing concerns about police being able to continue entering people's properties without a warrant even when New Zealand is no longer under lockdown. 

The legislation passed its final reading in Parliament on Wednesday night in time for alert level 2 on Thursday, and concerns have already been raised by the Human Rights Commission and the Green Party's youth wing

Parker said the legislation will now be reviewed and reported back to the House by July 27, in time for MPs to consider whether to renew it, in in line with National's suggestion to have the two-year law reviewed every 90 days.  

"That will allow the House to take into account the advice of the committee before it makes the decision whether to continue with the law for another 90 days - or longer if the House decides."

He said the post-enactment review has been recommended by legal experts and academics, and it will now go before the Finance and Expenditure Committee, which will have MPs from all parties in Parliament on it. 

Parker defended the law because it "ensures controls on gatherings of people and physical distancing are still enforceable" during alert level 2. He said it narrows police powers compared with those which applied under level 3 and 4.

"Despite claims by some critics, the powers of the police will be narrower from midnight tonight than they have been for the past seven weeks," he said on Wednesday, after the law passed its final reading in Parliament. 

"Under this Act, police will only be able to enter private homes to break up gatherings that violate the rules on the numbers of people assembling, whereas under the previous powers they could do so for a number of reasons."

He said another change will allow police to issue infringement notices rather than only being able to prosecute people that persistently flout the rules. Police must also report on the use of their powers. 

The law also spreads the responsibility to issue orders to Health Minister David Clark, instead of just Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, meaning a democratically elected MP gets to make the decisions. 

But National MP Gerry Brownlee argued earlier this week that it puts "too much power" in the hands of the Prime Minister, because it's unlikely the Health Minister will act on anything without her approval. 

The Young Greens said the law gives "unjust powers" to police which could be "used disproportionately" against Māori.

But Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said she's "listening" to the Māori community's concerns and said the Government will review whose dwellings are entered by police, with records to be updated regularly.  

The Prime Minister also defended the law on Friday, arguing it will only be used in a pandemic scenario, which she said is not expected to last two years. 

"These are specific to enforcing the restrictions that we have to manage the pandemic, so they are not going to be used outside of an environment where we are trying to look after people's health. 

"They have a two-year period but that is not the length of time we anticipate being at level 2 and they are only for those purposes - so very, very constrained."

There is speculation the Government lacked the legal power to enforce the alert level 4 lockdown, with leaked Crown law advice to the media purportedly showing police were initially told they had little power to enforce the rules. 

But Parker has dismissed the claims and refused to release the Crown law advice, insisting the law has been followed. He said the Crown is entitled to claim legal professional privilege in respect of the advice that it receives.