Trade law and dispute settlement

Sound legal advice and support is critical to MFAT’s international trade work.

Our Trade Law Unit provides legal support in free trade agreement (FTA) and WTO negotiations, representation in trade disputes, and advice about the consistency of New Zealand policy with our international trade law obligations.

Find out more about MFAT's work with the WTO

Read more about free trade agreements and how they are negotiated

Representing New Zealand and our exporters in trade disputes

The WTO agreements and our FTAs establish the legal rules governing New Zealand’s international trade. These rules help ensure that our trading partners don’t unfairly restrict imports of goods and services from New Zealand.

The Trade Law Unit ensures New Zealand gets the full benefit from trade agreements. We assess whether other countries’ trade and economic measures are consistent with their WTO and FTA commitments, particularly where these measures cause harm to New Zealand’s trading interests.

Where a complaint is warranted, we lead New Zealand’s involvement in WTO or FTA dispute settlement proceedings.

Do you have a trade access issue?

If you encounter an obstacle exporting a product or service to a WTO member or FTA partner, you can contact MFAT and we’ll examine whether the restriction violates WTO or FTA rules. If it does, we’ll first try and resolve the issue through direct discussion with the government concerned. Many trade problems have been resolved in this way. If we can’t reach a resolution, we’ll then consider whether WTO or FTA dispute settlement proceedings would be an appropriate response. 

World Trade Organisation disputes

The WTO provides a legally binding process to settle trade disputes. MFAT has taken nine trade disputes to the WTO for settlement on behalf of our exporters and the government. We've been involved in a further 40 cases as a third party to other members' disputes.

The WTO dispute settlement process involves three main stages:

  1. Consultations - the countries involved meet to try to resolve the dispute.
  2. Panel stage - if consultations don’t settle the issue, the complaining country may ask an adjudicative panel to produce a ruling. Panels comprise three members who hear arguments from the disputing parties and any interested third parties. If the panel decides the measure in question is in breach of the relevant WTO agreement, it will call on the country concerned to bring its laws or policies into line with the agreement. 
  3. Appeal - either party has the right of appeal to the Appellate Body. Appeals are limited to issues of law covered in the panel report and legal interpretations developed by the panel.

The dispute settlement process takes between 12-18 months (depending on whether or not it goes to appeal) and sometimes longer in more complicated cases.

Read about the current WTO disputes New Zealand is involved in

Find out about previous WTO disputes New Zealand has been a part of


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