Feature: Freedom camping

By: Peta Stavelli

Peta Stavelli looks at the sometimes-contentious issue of freedom camping and finds some inconsistencies in the law that make it hard for most of us to understand.

Feature: Freedom camping
Be in the know when you're on the go

The Freedom Camping Act 2011 states, "Freedom camping is permitted on any conservation land unless freedom camping is restricted or prohibited on the land."

And it's statements like this that make those of us who prefer to remain on the right side of the law consider the law may indeed be an ass.

So deep in the morass of legalese are the finer points of the Freedom Camping Act (FCA), which came into force on 30 August, 2011, the majority of us struggle to comprehend it. We are not alone. Some councils have been so assiduous in their desire to ban freedom campers from their regions, they've created bylaws that break the law.

Recognising the widespread confusion, in July 2012 The New Zealand Motorcaravan Association (NZMCA) commissioned public law firm, Chen Palmer, to prepare a document to help councils (and others) to better understand the act. As a result of this guide, a few councils have deferred their decisions to pass new bylaws, pending further information.

Chen Palmer's guide makes interesting reading for 'the others', into which category I also fall. It states: "A local authority may only make a bylaw restricting or prohibiting freedom camping in a local authority area if the bylaw is necessary for one or more of the following purposes:

  • To protect the area;
  • To protect the health and safety of people who may visit the area; or
  • To protect access to the area.

To satisfy itself that a bylaw is necessary, a local authority will almost always need to establish evidence of a problem, (attributable to freedom camping) that cannot be adequately managed by other means."

Councils cannot use irrelevant causes, like the visual impacts of freedom camping; a loss of revenue for commercial campground operators; the cost of enforcing restrictions; or unrelated thefts in an area to justify imposing a ban. Nor can the FCA be inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 which states, "Everyone lawfully in New Zealand has the right to freedom of movement and residence in New Zealand."

When the Freedom Camping Bill was first introduced, the Ministry of Justice noted that the Bill of Rights upholds the right of the individual to not have any limitation placed upon where that person may stay, which "necessarily affects his or her freedom of movement, as it requires them to go somewhere else to make camp."

But while our rights to freedom of movement are enshrined, it does not follow that we are allowed to camp where we choose. The purpose of the FCA was to provide local authorities with access to stronger regulatory measures to better manage the nuisance created by errant freedom campers. Its original intent was to allow for local bodies and the Department of Conservation (DOC) to designate areas where freedom camping was allowed, and to ban it everywhere else. However, like all laws and bylaws, the FCA can be challenged — and it was challenged and subsequently amended, largely due to the hard work of the NZMCA.

Under the new act, freedom camping is considered to be a permitted activity everywhere in a local authority or DOC area, except at those sites where it is specifically prohibited or restricted.

Effectively, blanket bans are restricted and freedom camping is presumed to be allowed unless it is explicitly prohibited. Where freedom camping is prohibited, appropriate signage containing either a map or description of the area relating to the ban, must be used.

How does the act define freedom camp? Freedom camp means "to camp (other than at a camping ground) within 200m of a motor vehicle accessible area or the mean low-water springs line of any sea or harbour, or on or within 200m of a formed road or a Great Walks Track, using one or more of the following: (a) a tent or other temporary structure (b) a caravan (c) a car, campervan, house-truck, or other motor vehicle".

So there you go. Try to get your grey matter around that.

Freedom camping is not: short term parking of a vehicle; day trip activity or "short term sleeping in vehicles to avoid driver fatigue". The latter is an interesting case in point. If a driver decides to ignore a ban and tries his luck at camping where he might reasonably hope to remain undetected by a local enforcement officer and he is subsequently caught out — claiming 'driver fatigue' is one of the few straws at which he might hope to clutch to avoid being moved on.

An enforcement officer may only require people to leave an area if they believe, on reasonable grounds, that they have committed — or are committing — an offence under the FCA. It is an offence to refuse to leave an area if required to do so by an enforcement officer. Freedom camping offences can attract penalties from $200 up to $10,000. Infringement fees also include penalties for discharging noxious, dangerous or offensive substances — for example, emptying a self-contained waste tank.

It is also because of the efforts of the NZMCA that councils have now backed down on what might have been a blanket ban on freedom camping and their lobbying of local bodies has also ensured that they consider the benefits freedom campers bring to their regions.

We are fortunate indeed that exceptional places to freedom camp exist in every region in New Zealand. We regard these opportunities as our right. But is it a right, or is it a privilege? How can we all help to ensure these places remain ours to use?

We'd love to hear your views on freedom camping and we'd also love your help with compiling information for fellow campers on where to go, where to avoid, and any other relevant information or images you'd care to share with us on this topic of high importance to us all.

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