Law during lockdown

When COVID-19 extended its malevolent grip across New Zealand in March, it threw a lot of plans into chaos.

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington was not alone in having to effect rapid changes as the March lockdown extended into April.

However, at the Faculty of Law, the lockdown became an opportunity in itself. As well as moving courses online and hosting a series of podcasts and webinars, a special Master’s course looking at the legal implications of COVID-19 was quickly developed for Trimester 2.

“COVID-19 and the Law” (LAWS 542), convened by Associate Professor Dean Knight and Associate Professor Nessa Lynch, offered eight Master of Laws (LLM) students the chance to take a critical look at the Government’s response. It covered many aspects of the lockdown and the Government’s response, including the legal underpinnings, efficacy and effects of the response, enforcement and challenges such as contact tracing and scientific risk assessment.

Dr Knight says the unprecedented nature of the nationwide lockdown posed real challenges for understanding how all the responses fitted together.

“The rule of law means we have got to make sure that what a government does is legal and proper. The ends mustn’t justify the means. How we respond to the emergency, and do so faithfully to the rule of law, is important too.”

The Faculty’s capital city advantage meant the movers and shakers could take part in the course more easily, including the Attorney General David Parker, Police Commissioner Andy Coster, experts from the Ministry of Health, MPs and journalists.

“The people who are at the coalface of the pandemic were able to take a moment to breathe and step out into a safe environment and talk about what they were experiencing,” he says. “We are still in the pandemic—some are still living and breathing it.”

A decision has yet to be made on whether the course runs again in 2021 but COVID-19 will continue to be explored in a number of different courses.

“There remain plenty of questions—questions about the borders and quarantine, the privacy of apps, around vaccinations. As we saw, these are fraught issues—there was almost a democratic meltdown around the election date.

“COVID-19 is going to remain a big player for a while to come and we have built up a lot of experience around COVID in the Faculty,” Dr Knight says.

Other faculty initiatives this year to work around COVID-19 have included:

  • numerous commentaries, webinar and podcast series, including the “Legal lowdown on the lockdown” ( legal-low-down-on-the-lockdown) LEX & LORE ( podcasts), and “Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19” (
  • the Faculty hosting a livestream from July 27 to 29 of the High Court hearing challenging the legality of the COVID-19 lockdown (Borrowdale v Director-General of Health) in the Old Government Buildings for staff and students. The livestream initiative—broadcast across law schools nationwide—was a judicial first and was organised and coordinated by Dr Knight on behalf of the law schools.
  • The NZ Centre for Public Law’s repository of comment and scholarship: “COVID-19 and beyond: legal and constitutional dimensions” ( nzcpl/projects/covid-19/), edited by a team of editors lead by Professor Joel Colón-RÍos and Dr Dean Knight.
  • Moving all law courses online, including recorded lectures, live tutorials and discussion sessions, and assessments. Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law Professor Mark Hickford liaised with the Council of Legal Education (CLE) to ensure that the changed assessments were acceptable for accreditation purposes. The Faculty also contributed to the University’s Trimester 2 scholarship programme for people who had been affected by COVID-19 by approving an extraordinary running of LAWS 121 in Trimester 2 so that they could begin a law degree then. Acting Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) Dr Mark Bennett led this.

Professor Hickford says the Faculty’s nimble, enthusiastic approach to the lockdown and pandemic is testament to its great academic leaders at every level of the Faculty.

“This reflects that we very much run our community as a community of scholars. And we have got very capable, thoughtful, academic leaders throughout the Faculty.

“Leadership is not just about a single person. This kind of enthusiasm, aligned with initiative, is absolutely vital to allowing us to progress as a Faculty community.”