Supreme Court, Van Gorkom v. Attorney General and another, 10 February 1977, [1977] 1 NZLR 535

New Zealand
Equal remuneration , Protection against discrimination in employment and occupation
Role of International Law:
Reference to international law to strengthen a decision based on domestic law
Type of instruments used:

Instruments not subject to ratification1

Discrimination on the grounds of sex/ The national education system/ Granting of a removal allowance only to male teachers/ Institution of proceedings before the Supreme Court/ Reference to international law to strengthen a decision based on domestic law

The provisions of administrative regulations provided for the refund of removal expenses only in the case of married men. The Court found that this difference in treatment was discriminatory according to national legislation.

In order to add force to its decision the Court referred to international law, stating that:

“(…) reference to certain international documents, though not essential, is not out of place. The Universal declaration of Human rights, adopted and promulgated in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations as a common standard of achievement, includes in article 2 and 23(2) statements that everyone is entitled to all the rights set forth in the declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as (among other things) sex, and that everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. The Declaration on Elimination of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the General Assembly in 1967, states in article 10.1:

“All appropriate measures shall be taken to ensure to women, married or unmarried, equal right with men in the field of economic and social life, and in particular (…): b) the right to equal remuneration with men and to equality of treatment in respect of work of equal value.”

Obviously these very general statements are not directed specifically to such narrow questions as removal expenses. Nor are they part of our domestic law. They represent goals towards which members of the United Nations are expected to work. But, in relation to certain social rights enunciated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights the opinion is expressed (…):

“They may be regarded however as representing a legislative policy which might influence the courts in the interpretation of statute law”.”

The Supreme Court of New Zealand held that in this instance the regulations establishing a difference in treatment between men and women was neither in conformity with national law nor compatible with the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. It thus recognized that these instruments played a role in the interpretation of national law. Consequently, the Court ruled in conclusion that the regulations concerning removal expenses were discriminatory.

1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 1967.

Full text of the decision