Gisborne District Council v Aratu Forests Ltd

Geographical Area
New Zealand
Case Name
Gisborne District Council v Aratu Forests Ltd
Case Reference
[2020] NZDC 2808
Name of Court
District Court of New Zealand
Key Facts
In June 2018, heavy rain caused a significant amount of forestry slash, logs, waste and sediment to enter catchments near the town of Tolaga Bay in New Zealand. The deposit of forestry debris in the river system blocked the Mangatokerau River. This caused the flooding of properties and houses which threatened lives, as well as destroying houses, buildings, infrastructure, and livestock.

The debris was caused by multiple forestry contributors. However, this case refers to only one of them: the Te Marunga Forest owned by Aratu Forests. Although not the primary cause, it is agreed that they were a contributor to the damage.

Aratu Forests plead guilty to two charges under s.15(1)(b) of the Resource Management Act 1991, one for their Wakaroa Forest and the other for their Te Marunga Forest. Under s.15(1)(b) no person may discharge contaminants onto or into land in circumstances which may result in those contaminants entering water. Only the Te Marunga Forest offence is relevant here, as the Wakaroa Forest offence relates to damage to protected waterways and wildlife. This case concerns Aratu’s sentencing.
Decision and Reasoning
As a substantial forester, the Court stated that Aratu Forests are expected to know and comply with the rules, so any fine must have real bite, rather than merely being a cost of business. They set the penalty starting point at NZ$360,000, 60% of the maximum penalty.

The Court considered Aratu’s culpability for its offending at Te Marunga to be at the high end of the scale due to their poor forest management practice generally, their breaches of their resource consent conditions, and how their actions primed the slopes for failure (there were 83 landing failures – absence of protective vegetation after felling and leaving of unstable accumulations of logging debris). The Court did not give credit for remedial work done under a Council abatement notice, as it is another offence to not complete this work. However, it did take into account the remorse shown by Aratu, which included a visit to victims and formal apologies, the koha payments made to two victims (assists them to get back to their feet and meet immediate financial needs), their help with tidy-up work on some of the victims’ properties, and paying half the costs of the log clean up in Tolaga Bay despite not being the primary contributor. Considering these factors to go above and beyond what its obligations were, the Court reduced the starting point by 15%, as well as a further reduction of 25% for a prompt guilty plea.
The Court ordered Aratu to pay NZ$229,500, less 10% Crown deduction, to the Gisborne District Council. In addition, it also made an order of reparations to the victims for emotional harm under s.32 of the Sentencing Act. They ordered Aratu to pay NZ$50,000 to each of the adult victims and NZ$25,000 to the child.

Of the 10 companies charged in the aftermath of the Tolaga Bay flooding, only five related to damage in Tolaga Bay or its catchment area. Of these five, only two, Aratu Forests and PF Olsen have been sentenced. Unlike Aratu, PF Olsen was limited to property damage to a specific station, not the more general damage to the town.
This case law summary was developed as part of the Disaster Law Database (DISLAW) project, and is not an official record of the case.