Kate Dewes fought for peace on the global stage, but trying to get her earthquake-damaged home in Christchurch repaired “nearly finished me”

Kate Dewes is a peace negotiator of global standing.

A long-time activist for disarmament, she successfully lobbied for New Zealand’s Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, the world’s first national nuclear-free law. She played a key role in the decision by the International Court of Justice that the use of nuclear weapons would “generally be contrary to the rules of international law”. She is a former advisor on peace matters to two United Nations Secretaries-General and, along with her husband, Rob Green, co-founded the Disarmament & Security Centre from their home in Riccarton.

But this home, a large 1924 house known as Te Whare Maukaroko (the House of Peace), has taxed the endurance of these seasoned of campaigners. It has taken numerous reports, letters and emails, a High Court case and now, finally, a claim to the two-year-old Canterbury Earthquakes Insurance Tribunal, to finally open the way to the repair of their earthquake-damaged home.

“What’s kept me strong has been all these other people waiting for a test case to happen – we’ve been one of those test cases. It’s nearly finished me in that process. And still we live in a cold, mouldy, draughty, damp house with slates falling off and twisted windows that don’t shut.”

Te Whare Maukaroko suffered significant damage in the earthquake on September 4, 2010. One chimney came down and another two had to be removed; the house dropped 8.4cm on one side.

The earthquake of February 22, 2011 brought further damage. “And earthquakes kept rolling in – you’d be trying to sleep in a room where there was dust falling on you and water pouring through the roof.”

A comprehensive, full-replacement policy under State Insurance, subsequently brought under the umbrella of IAG, gave the couple some assurance and in 2014 the repairs were given to a building team under IAG’s repair programme.

Repairs took five months. But when they returned they found major problems. The steel windows had not been repaired, slates kept falling off the roof, floor levels were still skewed and the bathroom leaked.

For two years they worked with IAG to have their home properly repaired but when a crittercam report showed the damage remaining under the house, “We said, we’ve got to get lawyers.”

They filed a civil claim at the High Court. For homeowners, she says, it is a costly – over $370,000 – and “pretty brutal” process. “The insurance companies have high-paid lawyers. They have power in a way we haven’t – firms can liquidate, families can’t. We have to stay in a damp house and keep fighting.”

Then they heard about the Canterbury Earthquakes Insurance Tribunal, set up in 2019 to resolve disputes between homeowners and insurance companies.

“That became like a lifesaver. The tribunal was set up to try and balance the big powerful insurance companies on the one side and ordinary homeowners on the other. It is not supposed to be adversarial like the High Court – it is supposed to be cost-effective, fair and flexible.”

Still, she says, it was not easy – two determined homeowners fronting up to “a whole lot of lawyers”.

“I’m not a lawyer, Rob’s not a lawyer, but we’ve had to learn to become lawyers. We’ve had to learn to cross-examine, to write submissions.”

As the chair of the tribunal, former District Court judge Chris Somerville, wrote in his decision in May this year, “it is disappointing that the process has remained adversarial, slow and expensive”.

The tribunal did not agree with all the arguments raised by the homeowners. The judge did however agree with their claim that many of the outstanding issues were the result of the earthquake and that the insurer should uphold their promise to repair damage to a condition “as similar as possible to when it was new”. Basically, says Dewes, the tribunal said the house was earthquake-damaged and most of it had to be repaired. “Yes!”

In a further decision this year Dewes and Green were awarded some tribunal cost expenses.

It is not over yet. As Dewes says, repairs still have to be done and IAG are now appealing to the High Court to overturn the decision on Tribunal costs.

In the meantime, the couple still live in their “draughty, damp house with twisted windows that don’t shut”.

Newsroom asked IAG to respond to the claims by Dewes in the video and received the following statement from an IAG spokesperson.

“We strongly disagree that we acted in bad faith or caused any delays to the proceedings.

“IAG disagrees with the findings of the tribunal and has appealed the decision to the High Court. Because the matter is now before the High Court, we are unable to comment further.”

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