Discrimination and Human Rights 

What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances. Discrimination can be direct or indirect, and generally takes the form of exclusion or rejection from something. 

The Human Rights Act 1993 protects people in New Zealand from unfair discrimination in a number of areas. It looks to protect human rights in line with United Nations conventions.

When does the Human Rights Act apply and what does it cover?

The Act applies when;

  • An act of discrimination occurs and
  • That act of discrimination is one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination specified in the Act  (see the question below for more information about the prohibited grounds)

The Act has a number of rights and restrictions for people in a range of areas of life;

Public life:

  • Government or public sector activities

Private life:

  • Employment
  • Organisations of employees or employers and professional and trade organisations
  • Vocational training bodies and qualifying bodies
  • Access to public places, vehicles and facilities
  • Provision of goods and services
  • Provision of land, housing and accommodation
  • Access to education
  • Sexual harassment, racial harassment and racial disharmony
  • Partnerships

You can read the Human Rights Act online.

What are the prohibited grounds of discrimination?

The Act forbids discrimination on the grounds of your;

  • Sex (gender), including pregnancy and childbirth
  • Marital status - which means:
    •  being single, 
    • married,
    • in a civil union,
    • in a de facto relationship, 
    • widowed,
    • separated, or
    • a party to a marriage or civil union that has dissolved, or a de facto relationship that has ended
  • Religious belief
  • Ethical belief (i.e. not having a religious belief)
  • Colour, race, ethnic or national origin (includes your nationality or citizenship)
  • Disability - this means: 
    • physical disability or impairment, 
    • physical illness, 
    • psychiatric illness, 
    • intellectual or psychological disability or impairment, or
    • any other loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function reliance on a guide dog, wheelchair, or other remedial means, the presence in the body of organisms capable of causing illness
  • Age (applies after you’re 16 years old)
  • Political opinion (including a lack of political opinion)
  • Employment status (including being unemployed, or receiving a benefit under the Social Security Act 1964 or an entitlement under the Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Compensation Act 2001).
  • Family status - this means: 
    • having the responsibility for part-time or full-time care of children or other dependants; 
    • having no responsibility for the care of children or other dependants; 
    • being married to, or being in a civil union or de facto relationship with a particular person; or
    • being a relative of a particular person
  • Sexual orientation - this means being: 
    • heterosexual, 
    • homosexual, 
    • lesbian, or 
    • bisexual.

There are some exceptions in the Human Rights Act allowing for discrimination which would otherwise be illegal under this Act. Details about the exceptions are included under Part 2 of the Act (Unlawful Discrimination) in each of the sections of part 2 that describe the different prohibited grounds of discrimination.      

What can I do if I’m discriminated against?

If you think you’ve been unlawfully discriminated against you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Your complaint has to be based on:

  • One of the prohibited grounds set out in the Act (e.g. religious belief)
  • One of the areas of life covered by the Act (e.g. employment)

You can make a complaint by contacting the Human Rights Commission:

  • on freephone 0800 496 877, or
  • emailing them at infoline@hrc.co.nz or
  • by completing an online form on the Human Rights Commission website or
  • by writing to the Commission at: 

Human Rights Commission,
PO 6751,
Wellesley St,
New Zealand.

Other languages and sign language are also available for complainants. More information is on the HRC website.

The HRC will then follow a dispute resolution process to deal with the complaint. The process begins with an information advisor giving you information to help you try to resolve the complaint. If you are not able to resolve the situation this way, a duty mediator normally attempts to resolve the dispute informally by working with you and the person or organisation you are complaining about.

Mediation can involve discussions by telephone, an exchange of letters or a face-to-face meeting. Possible outcomes of mediation could be:

  • An apology
  • A promise not to discriminate in the future
  • An agreement to an education programme
  • Compensation

If the dispute resolution process hasn’t resulted in a solution, then you can take your complaint to the Office of Human Rights Proceedings (OHRP). This is an independent office who decides whether your case should be sent to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. If the OHRP decides to take your case to the Tribunal then they will provide free legal representation for you.  If they do not decide to take your case then you will have to take your own case to the Tribunal at your own expense.

The Human Rights Review Tribunal is the final stage of the complaint process. They will hear your case, and the other person’s account of events, and decide whether you’ve been discriminated against unlawfully. The Tribunal has the power to:

  • Award you damages for any financial loss the discrimination might have caused the loss of any benefit due to the discrimination humiliation, loss of dignity, and injury to feelings
  • Make an order stopping the other party from continuing or repeating the conduct you’re complaining about
  • Order the other party to do particular things to put right any loss or damage you’ve suffered.