s226. Time limit for prosecutions A prosecution against any person for a corrupt practice or an illegal practice shall be commenced within 6 months after the offence was committed: Provided that where the person charged has been reported by the High Court in its report on the trial of an election petition to have been proved guilty of the offence, a prosecution shall be commenced within 6 months after the offence was committed or within 3 months after the date of the report, whichever period is the later to expire.There's some question mark about when any offence was committed, assuming there was one. A lot of people have adopted the 6 months from the election date or the date of the electoral return. However, I suspect it's at an earlier point in time. The offence in section s214B(3) is as follows:
(3) Every person who directly or indirectly pays or knowingly aids or abets any person in paying for or on account of any election expenses any sum in excess of the maximum amount prescribed by this section is, (a) If the act is done with knowledge that the payment is in excess of the maximum amount prescribed by this section, guilty of a corrupt practice; and (b) In any other case, guilty of an illegal practice unless the person proves that he or she took all reasonable steps to ensure that the election expenses did not exceed the maximum amount prescribed by this section.The critical elements are "pays" and "in excess of the maximum amount". This means, I think, the time of any offence was when Labour paid the first invoice that took them over any limit (assuming the pledge cards are attributable spending under the Electoral Act - there's seems to be no doubt that if it was, they were over the limit). As an aside, there is some dissonance between the reference in the offence section to "pays" when the definition of election expenses refers to "incurs". Now, factually, I have no idea when this took place - it may have been rather early in the election process. Alternatively, it might have been months after, particularly if an actual payment approach is adopted. (Actually, I was once involved in litigation which raised the issue of whether a cause of action arose when expenses were "incurred" or "paid": see Watercare Services Ltd v Affco New Zealand Ltd.) I suspect therefore that any prosecution was always going to face limitation problems. The question has been raised about whether retrospective legislation could be used to amend the limitation provision to allow a prosecution. However, if a desire to allow a prosecution is to be pursued, I'm not convinced it is necessary. There is a possible solution within the Electoral Act itself, albeit somewhat of a "hail mary". Section 266 of the Electoral Act empowers the Governor-General extend the time for doing anything which could not have been done in the time required:
s266. Validation of irregularities Where anything is omitted to be done or cannot be done at the time required by or under this Act, or is done before or after that time, or is otherwise irregularly done in matter of form, or sufficient provision is not made by or under this Act, the Governor-General may, by Order in Council gazetted, at any time before or after the time within which the thing is required to be done, extend that time, or validate anything so done before or after the time required or so irregularly done in matter of form, or make other provision for the case as he or she thinks fit: Provided that this section shall not apply with respect to the presentation of an election petition or to the giving of security for costs in relation to an election petition.Now, it's not straight-forward for a number of reasons: - Although, on its face, the section is wide enough to cover this scenario, it's clearly not the purpose of the section (and could be "read down" according). - It would need to be established that a prosecution within the time limit was never a possibility; I'm not sure that was the case. - Applying the section might have retrospective effect, which is problematic in the criminal context. On the other hand, it's only the limitation period not the substantive criminal offence (the Court of Appeal in R v Hibberd  2 NZLR 211 seemed less concerned with retrospectivity in limitation provisions: "Any failure to provide in the reforms for what would amount to an amnesty is not ... the equivalent of the retrospective imposition of a penalty.") and conceptually a prosecution now would not violate the offender's decision-making functions - merely remove an amnesty. - Limitation periods generally arise because of a desire for a fair trial and, in this context, the legal certainty related to the election. In this case, neither is really an issue: the provisions already recognise an extended limitation period if the offence is reported in an electoral petition (which is not a possibility for party spending). - Realistically, the prospect of the Governor-General gazetting an Order in Council is remote because these are gazetted on advice of the Executive Council, ie the government. Anyways, food for thought!