Supreme Court of New Zealand declares that preventing 16 and 17 year olds from voting is unjustified age discrimination and in breach of the Bill of Rights Act
In Late 2019, with the help of our lawyers acting pro bono (for free), we first filed in the High Court. Three years later, the Supreme Court has issued a landmark declaration that preventing 16 and 17 year-olds voting is age discrimination the Government has not justified.
What is the legal argument of the case?
The NZ Local Electoral Act says everyone 18 years or older has the right to vote. Yet s 19 of the NZ Bill of Rights says our right to be free from age discrimination commences from the age of 16.
Therefore the voting age of 18 is a limit on 16 year-olds right to be free from age discrimination. The voting age has to be demonstrably justified, meaning there has to be an exceptional reason to stop 16 and 17 year-olds voting, and the Government has to come up with it. They didn’t because there isn’t one. That means preventing 16 and 17 year-olds from voting is unjustified age discrimination.
What did we want to get out of the case?
During our court case we were seeking a ‘Declaration of Inconsistency’ that the parts of the Electoral Act 1993 and Local Government Electoral Act 2001 that prevent 16 and 17 year-olds from voting are in breach of the Bill of Rights. That is a bit technical, but it basically means the Courts formally telling the world, and Parliament in particular, that our rights have been unjustifiably breached.
Who funded the case?
Our amazing lawyers are working pro bono as they are passionate about building a better and more inclusive democracy. We are incredibly grateful for their generosity, skill and experience they brought to our case. We also had all court expenses waived as this was an important case of public interest.
Timeline of our court case:
We first filed in the High Court back in 2019, and we got a decision from Justice Doogue in late 2020. Unfortunately, while she decided there was age discrimination she found that discrimination was justified.
We then appealed to the Court of Appeal (the next level of courts in NZ). In that case we… almost won. The 3 judges on the case found that there was age discrimination and that the Government had not justified it (disagreeing with the High Court on the second point). Basically, they agreed with our key arguments BUT they decided they had the discretion to decline to issue the formal declaration of inconsistency. In other words, while there was age discrimination, they decided they didn’t have to formally say that. The reason they gave is that it is simply too political for the Courts.
We found that result both frustrating yet encouraging. Encouraging because it still gave us reason to take this to the Supreme Court, and that we could still go to Parliament and tell them that our country’s second-highest Court has agreed that 16 year-olds rights have been breached.
The Supreme Court heard our case in July 2022. After a very quick four months they announced their judgment in November. The Supreme Court ruled that preventing 16 and 17 year-olds from voting is unjustified age discrimination in breach of the Bill of Rights. WE HAD WON! On the same day the Government announced its intention to put a Bill to make the voting age 16 before Parliament.
We have made each court's judgment available below: