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Religious Disputes - an introduction


The manifestation of one's religious beliefs (which includes lack of said beliefs) is a fundamental right - ss 13, 15 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966.

The rules of a religious association are generally viewed as a bargain. For some time, the civil, secular Courts were chary about assuming jurisdiction of matters where a ruling on spiritual matters was required. It is accepted that the veracity of religious beliefs is non-justiciable, with Shergill v Khaira [2014] UKSC 33 allowing even doctrinal content to be considered where civil rights are at play in the dispute. In more recent times, (such as in Matamu v Si'itia) [2017] NZCA 482, [2018] NZAR 348) the Courts are more likely to view the dispute through a contractual lens. This means contractual remedies are more likely to be available.

In the present day, Courts actively seek and do determine the content of the bargain (or contract), then simply apply its terms to the facts of the dispute.

Maxwelton Chambers have experience in the following legal matters in this area of law:

  • advice on drafting the Bargain (deed, constitution or rules).
  • advice as to the structure of religious bodies.
  • advice and representation on the human rights ramifications of religious disputes.
  • disputes where Richard has acted include: the 2005-2010 Samoan Assemblies of God schism (on ecclesiological grounds); the Avondale union Parish litigation: Matamu v Si'itia; independent church (Whangareii High Court judicial review) meeting, membership and ultra vires membership and property usage dispute; church discipline (internal church processes) 1999-2002; sale of church properties (Presbyterian to Buddhist convent); sale to private owner of church with urupa (involving obtaining a disinterment licence from the Ministry of Health).
  • advice as to drafting documents for registration with the Charities Board.