What is harassment?

The Harassment Act defines harassment as a pattern of behaviour (two or more separate acts within a 12-month period) directed at someone which makes that person feel distressed or unsafe.

For example if someone is harassing you they might be:

  • watching, loitering near, or preventing or hindering access to or from your place of residence, business, employment, or any other place that you go to 
  • following, stopping, or confronting you 
  • entering, or interfering with, your property  
  • making contact with you (by phone, email etc.) when you don’t want them to
  • giving you offensive material, leaving it where you will find it (e.g. online) 
  • acting in any way that causes you to fear for your safety, and would cause any reasonable person in the same situation to fear for their safety

It’s important to know that sexual harassment isn’t covered by the Harassment Act, but by the Human Rights Act. You can visit the Human Rights Commission website for information about making a complaint to them.
If the harassment is occurring at your workplace, you can read our Problems in the workplace page for information about what to do.

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What’s the difference between civil and criminal harassment?

The main difference between the two is the intention of the harasser and the consequences for them. 

If the harasser’s intention is to make you fear for your safety or that of your family, and they know that their actions are likely to achieve this aim, this is called “criminal” harassment and is a criminal offence. This means the harasser can be arrested and could be given a sentence of up to two years in prison.

If the harasser is causing you fear or distress unintentionally, this is known as “civil” harassment. Civil harassment is not a criminal offence.

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What should I do if I feel I’m being harassed?

If you feel that your personal safety (or that of your family) is under threat, call the Police.
You may want to apply to the District Court for a restraining order to prevent that person from contacting you in future.

You can also apply to the District Court for a restraining order if the harassment is not of a criminal nature, to prevent that person from contacting you in future.

Note that if the person harassing you is someone you are (or have been) in a domestic relationship with, then instead of a restraining order you would apply for a protection order under the Domestic Violence Act.

Information about what to do about harassment at work is on our Bullying in the workplace and Personal issues in the workplace pages.

The Human Rights Commission has information about dealing with sexual harassment.

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What’s a restraining order?

A restraining order orders the harasser to stay away from you. Its purpose is to try to keep you safe from any future civil harassment from that person.

A person who has a restraining order against them can’t:

  • do, or threaten to do, any specified act to you 
  • encourage another person to do any of those acts to you

This means your harasser can’t loiter around your house, call or text you, follow you, or any of the other specified acts. If the harassment includes publishing offensive material online, they must take reasonable steps to remove that offensive material. 

It is a criminal offence for someone who has a restraining order against them to breach the conditions of the order.

See below for information about how to apply for a restraining order.

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How can I apply for a restraining order?

You apply to the District Court for a restraining order.

You will have to fill out three different forms: 

  1.  an application for a restraining order, 
  2.  an affidavit in support, and 
  3.  a notice of proceeding.

You will need to sign these forms in front of a Justice of the Peace (JP) or Registrar of the Court and file the forms at your local District Court. Then you will be sent information about when your Court hearing will take place.

You can make an application for a restraining order on your own but the District Courts recommend that you get some legal help for your application.

If you are on a benefit or a low income then you may be eligible for legal aid to help with the application process. Otherwise you can get in touch with your local Citizens Advice Bureau or Community Law Centre to help you find out what free assistance may be available to you.

You’ll need to attend a hearing, at which the judge will make a decision about whether or not to make the restraining order.

You can download the forms from the Ministry of Justice website, or you can get hard copies of the forms from your local District Court.  

If you need a JP contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau.   

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How much will it cost to apply for a restraining order?

There is no court filing fee associated with applying for a restraining order. If you get a lawyer, you’ll probably have to pay for your legal costs (you’ll pay less if you successfully apply for legal aid.

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Someone has applied for a restraining order against me. How can I defend this?

If someone has applied for a restraining order against you the District Court will let you know by sending you a copy of the application and supporting affidavit. You should get these at least five days before the hearing.

You’ll need to attend the hearing if you wish to challenge the application. At the hearing you (or your lawyer, if you choose to get one) will have an opportunity to argue why a restraining order against you should not be made (for example you are a debt collector and were only trying to contact the person as part of your job).

You’ll find more information about challenging a restraining order application on the Community Law website.

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How long does a restraining order last?

If the court does not specify a time period, a restraining order lasts for one year. Otherwise the order will remain in force for the time decided by the court and can be extended if the applicant needs protection for longer.

While the restraining order is in place, either party (the person who applied for it or the person who is restrained by it) can apply to the District Court to have the order ended before the specified time is up. They’ll have to prove to the court that the restraining order is no longer necessary.