How human rights work

In New Zealand the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act set out our human rights in law. These laws apply to government agencies (including local authorities) and private sector organisations when they provide you with a service, or make decisions that affect you.

Did you know that before it becomes law, every piece of legislation is checked to make sure it doesn’t breach our human rights? Learn more about New Zealand human rights legislation.

Who is covered?

Everyone is entitled to human rights, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. If you are in New Zealand, you are covered.

The Bill of Rights Act covers general human rights such as freedom of expression and the right to work and education. The Human Rights Act covers unlawful discrimination (for example, on the basis of age, colour or gender). Other laws that deal with human rights issues include the Treaty of Waitangi and the Privacy Act.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances.

What can you complain about?

The prohibited grounds of discrimination are set out in section 21 of the Human Rights Act. They are:

  • Age (from age 16 years)
  • Colour
  • Disability
  • Employment Status
  • Ethical Belief (lack of religious belief)
  • Ethnic or National Origins (includes nationality and citizenship)
  • Family Status (having dependents, not having dependents, being married to, or in a civil union or de facto relationship with, a particular person or being a relative of a particular person)
  • Marital Status (single, married, in a civil union or a de facto relationship, separated, a party to a marriage or civil union now dissolved, widowed)
  • Political Opinion (including having no political opinion)
  • Race & Racial Harassment
  • Religious Belief
  • Sex & Sexual Harassment
  • Sexual Orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual)

What can you do?

If you feel someone in government or authority has abused your human rights, you have the right to take a case against them in court. This process is not free, but you can apply for legal aid.

If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination, you can apply for free legal representation at the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

Learn more about using your rights.

Absolute and legal human rights

While some human rights are ‘absolute’ for example, freedom from torture, some are ‘legal rights’. This means there may be times when an individual’s rights must be balanced with the rights of others.

For example, a person’s right to freedom of expression would be unlikely to be upheld if they gave a speech that promoted racial hatred.