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Dr Toni Collins
University of Canterbury

On Tuesday 19 March 2019 the Wellington Central library was suddenly closed indefinitely owing to it being at risk of collapse in the event of an earthquake. The announcement was made on Tuesday afternoon to take effect immediately and the entrance cordoned on Wednesday morning to prevent public access. This drastic action was taken as a consequence of a report delivered to the Wellington City Council by an engineering firm which had undertaken an assessment of the building and concluded it did not meet new seismic assessment guidelines and therefore posed a risk to people should a major earthquake occur. Despite its earthquake vulnerabilities, the Council was not legally obliged to close the building. It did so because, as Mayor Justin Lester said “we are morally obliged”.[1] This was not action the Council wished to take, but it had to take, to maintain public confidence that it is prioritising staff and public safety as a public authority should do. The purpose of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 is to provide a framework to secure the health and safety of workers and workplaces. One of the ways stated to achieve this purpose is to provide assistance to workers to achieve a healthier and safer work environment. To assist with implementation, a key principle of the Act is that workers and other persons are given the “highest level of protection against harm to their health, safety and welfare from hazards and risks arising from work … as is reasonably practicable”.  As a natural extension of this concern for health and safety at work is the question whether commercial building owners have a legal obligation to their tenants, employees and members of the public to ensure the building is safe under this legislation. Surely this must mean the building cannot be earthquake vulnerable?  Or does it?  This Paper examines whether commercial building owners have a legal obligation to ensure their buildings are seismically sound in terms of their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

Dr Toni Collins is a Lecturer at the School of Law at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. She has recently completed her PhD entitled “The Doctrine of Frustration, Commercial Leases and the Canterbury Earthquakes”. She teaches in Land Law and Natural Resources law and her research interests include disaster law, natural resources law and environmental law. Toni has been admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. She has worked in private practice in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When the Canterbury earthquakes struck she was practising intellectual property law managing an extensive trade mark portfolio for an insurance company. The multitude of legal issues that arose after the earthquakes sparked an interest in disaster law and led to her completing a PhD.


[1] Felix Desmarais and Andre Chumko ‘Wellington Central Library to close indefinitely due to earthquake concerns’ (19 March 2019) found at


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