Make a complaint

What you can complain about

The Human Rights Act protects people in New Zealand from discrimination. The Act outlines what behaviours are against the law, and the process for protecting your rights. Here is a summary of the types of discrimination you can complain about under the Act.

What the law protects you against

The Human Rights Act 1993 makes it unlawful to discriminate based on:

  • Sex – includes pregnancy and childbirth, and discrimination against transgender and intersex people because of their sex or gender identity.
  • Marital status – includes marriages and civil unions that have ended.
  • Religious belief – not limited to traditional or mainstream religions.
  • Ethical belief – not having a religious belief.
  • Colour, race, or ethnic or national origins – includes nationality or citizenship.
  • Disability – including physical, psychiatric, intellectual or psychological disability or illness.
  • Age – people are protected from age discrimination if they are over 16 years old.
  • Political opinion – including not having a political opinion.
  • Employment status – being unemployed, on a benefit or on ACC. It does not include being employed or being on national superannuation.
  • Family status – includes not being responsible for children or other dependants.
  • Sexual orientation – being heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian or bisexual.
  • Family violence experience – applies to employees and job applicants affected by family violence.

These grounds apply to a person’s past, present or assumed circumstances. For example, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because they have a mental illness, had one in the past, or someone assumes they have a mental illness.

The prohibited grounds for discrimination are covered in detail in part two of the Human Rights Act.

Where discrimination can happen

Not all discrimination is unlawful. Discrimination may be unlawful when it happens in the following areas of public life:

  • Government or public sector activities
  • Employment
  • Business partnerships
  • Education
  • Public places, vehicles and facilities
  • The provision of goods and services
  • The provision of land, housing and accommodation
  • Industrial and professional associations, qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies.

Sexual and racial harassment

Sexual harassment and racial harassment are particular types of discrimination. Sexual harassment is unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated or significant enough to have a harmful effect on a person. Racial harassment is behaviour that is racist, hurtful or offensive and is either repeated or serious enough to have a harmful effect on a person.

Read the Racial harassment guide (PDF Version).

Read the Sexual harassment guide (PDF Version).

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when an action or policy that appears to treat everyone the same actually discriminates against someone. For example, if the only entrance to a shop is by climbing stairs, that indirectly discriminates against someone who uses a wheelchair.

Racial disharmony

It is unlawful to cause or excite hostility against groups of people, or bring them into contempt, because of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origin.

Under the Act, exciting racial disharmony means to:

  • publish, distribute or broadcast material which is threatening, abusive or insulting
  • use threatening, abusive or insulting words in a public place
  • use threatening, abusive or insulting words in a situation where the speaker knows that they are likely to be reported.

To be unlawful, the action must incite, or be likely to incite, hatred against a group of people or bring them into contempt. An action does not need to be deliberate to be against the law.

The right to freedom of expression is an important part of New Zealand’s democratic society. For this reason, a complaint of exciting racial disharmony must be balanced against the right to freedom of expression. Complaints must meet a high threshold before they can be progressed.

Serious threats or insults made against individuals may be best dealt with under criminal law or by a civil action for defamation.


The Act also prohibits victimisation of people because of their assertion of their human rights under the Act or because of the making of a disclosure under the Protected Disclosures Act 2000. Victimisation includes treating people (or threatening to treat people) less favourably than they otherwise would have been because:

  1. They intend to make use of their rights under the Act.
  2. They have: 
    • Made use of their rights under the Act
    • Promoted the rights of another person under the Act
    • Provided information in relation to a complaint under the Act 
    • Declined to do anything contrary to the Act 
    • Done anything else with regard to the Act. 
  3. Their relative or associate intends to do or has done any of the above.
If a person is victimised they may contact the Human Rights Commission’s dispute resolution service. Issues of victimisation are dealt with in the same way as other disputes referred to the Commission. The same remedies are available to people who have been victimised as are available to people who have been discriminated against or harassed.

Other human rights complaints

You can still contact the Human Rights Commission if your complaint is about other human rights issues. The enquiries and complaints service can help by providing advice and information, and by suggesting how best to resolve your issue.

Further Info

Human rights complaints: What you need to know (PDF) 

Human rights complaints: what you need to know (Accessible)

How to make a complaint

Advice and support