Basic principles of law for school leaders

You don’t need to be a lawyer to be a school leader, but you do need to understand how natural justice, judge-made law and legislation affect your role. These basic principles will help you.


Parliament expresses its wishes for schools through legislation and empowering regulations.

A range of laws, from the Education and Training Act 2020, to health and safety, employment, copyright and many others, are required to be applied within the school setting.


Principals and boards have significant powers under the Education and Training Act 2020.

  • While students are at your school, they are under your jurisdiction, so you can act as you like with them, within the law.
  • The school’s board is the employer of school staff, and it is likely you will have employment powers delegated to you.
  • You hold in your hands the expectations of your local communities and can choose, within limits, how you work with them, and even how they should be defined.
  • You work with local agencies, companies and statutory organisations to keep your school running well.

In the exercise of your powers, you can either enhance and strengthen, or reduce and suppress, the rights, opportunities and expectations of each member of the school community.


With power comes responsibility. 

New Zealand inherited a rich tradition of so-called natural justice, or common law, from Britain and enacted a NZ Bill of Rights Act in 1990.

The principles of natural justice are:

  • Everybody is equal under the law (and everyone’s rights are important).
  • Everybody has the right to fair treatment.
  • Procedures are important: procedural fairness means a fair, unbiased, relevant and appropriate process.
  • No-one can ever lose their right to natural justice.

The law is built on the notion of precedent: that earlier decisions, and decisions made at the higher level of the courts, stand as law until overturned.

  • This means that where the facts and/or principles are identical, the outcome of a later decision will be the same as that of an earlier decision.
  • Your approach to a problem therefore needs to take into account prior decisions of the courts, where relevant.

Some pitfalls for schools

State schools have a responsibility to educate all children that come to the school.

  • When dealing with issues of discipline, the aim should always be a solution that is balanced and fair.
  • A show of strength such as “zero tolerance” policies for relatively common offences may breach natural justice, and have also been challenged in the courts.
  • Sometimes there are competing natural justice needs within the school community which have to be effectively managed.

Good processes

In order to protect the school community, decision-making processes should be properly recorded from start to finish. This means:

  • All processes, discussions and decisions should be conducted as if they were public.
  • The more serious the issue, the more pristine the processes must be.
  • Any advice given, especially where acting on it may lead to the detriment of a person or persons, must be accurate and of high quality.

While informal processes may sometimes be the best way of dealing with an issue, those involved must be fully informed and given a choice of approach.

See the Ministry of Education guidelines on stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions for more information on:

Being fair and flexible

Documenting processes

Updated: August 2020

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