Discrimination and the Human Rights Act 



What are human rights?

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that every person is entitled to regardless of their age, ethnicity, culture, religion or sex.

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What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances, for example on the grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, body size, marital status, country of origin or disability.

Discrimination can be direct (eg an employer pays one employer less than another employee when both employees do the same work with the same level of skill and experience) or indirect (eg the only entrance to a shop is by climbing stairs, which indirectly discriminates against someone who uses a wheelchair).

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How does the Human Rights Act apply?

The Human Rights Act 1993 aims to ensure that all people in New Zealand are treated fairly and equally, in line with United Nations conventions. It also sets out the role of the Human Rights Commission. This Act and the Bill of Rights Act are the two main human rights laws in New Zealand.

The Human Rights Act specifies what kinds of discrimination are unlawful, including sexual harassment, racial harassment and racial disharmony, and also sets out some exclusions where it is lawful to treat people differently. These human rights laws apply to government agencies (including local councils) and to businesses and organisations when they provide you with a service, or make decisions that affect you.

The types of areas of life that are covered are:

  • dealings with government or public sector agencies
  • employment 
  • access to public places, vehicles and facilities 
  • provision of goods and services 
  • provision of land, housing and accommodation 
  • access to education

In general, our human rights laws don’t cover behaviour between private individuals.

You can read the Human Rights Act online

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What are the unlawful grounds of discrimination?

The Act makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of your:

  • gender
  • marital status (ie whether you are single, married, in a civil union, in a de facto relationship etc) 
  • religious or ethical belief
  • colour, race, ethnic or national origin (including your nationality or citizenship)
  • disability (ie whether you have a physical disability or impairment, physical illness, psychiatric illness, intellectual or psychological disability or impairment, etc) 
  • 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 (ie whether you are a carer of children or other dependants, are in a relationship with or related to a particular person etc)
  • sexual orientation (eg whether you are heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual. 

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Are there any exceptions where it is not against the law to treat people differently?

There are some exceptions in the Human Rights Act where treating people differently based on the grounds above is not against the law.

For example if you apply for a job for a political party but don’t share that party’s political views, the political party can treat you differently from an applicant who does share their views even though you are otherwise equally qualified for the role.     

You can find out about exceptions on the Human Rights Commission website, described under each type of discrimination.

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What can I do if I’ve been discriminated against?

If you think you’ve been unlawfully discriminated against you can make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Your complaint has to be based on:

  • one of the prohibited grounds set out in the Act (eg religious belief)
  • one of the areas of life covered by the Act (eg employment)

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

  • by calling 0800 496 877, 
  • by emailing them at infoline@hrc.co.nz
  • by texting them on 0210 236 4253,
  • by completing an online form on the Human Rights Commission website or
  • by writing to the Commission at: 

Human Rights Commission,
PO Box 6751,
Wellesley St,
Auckland 1141.

(Information about making a complaint is also available in other languages and sign language on the Human Rights Commission website.)

If your complaint is something that the Human Rights Commission can deal with, they will work with you to try to resolve the issue. First they will see if they can support you to sort things out informally, such as giving you information so you can contact the other party yourself.

If this doesn’t work then mediation may be an option. A mediator will help you and the other party to work through the issues brought up by the complaint and to try to agree on some solutions. Mediation is free and confidential. It can be done over the phone, through letters, or a face-to-face meeting. 

Possible outcomes of mediation could be:
  • an apology
  • a promise not to repeat the same behaviour in the future
  • an agreement to complete an education programme
  • compensation

If your complaint isn’t resolved through mediation, then you can escalate your complaint to the Office of Human Rights Proceedings (OHRP). This is an independent office that 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 can still choose to go ahead with taking your case to the Tribunal but you will have to pay for legal representation (if you can’t afford a lawyer you may be eligible for legal aid).

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 unlawfully discriminated against. 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, or for 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.