Your civil and political rights 

What are our civil and political rights and how are they protected in New Zealand?

These are the rights which enable us to take part in our country’s decision-making, to engage with government bodies and agencies in an open and transparent manner, and live in a society which is tolerant, fair and free of discrimination and corruption. Our civil and political rights include the rights to freedom of expression, religious belief, freedom of movement, and the right to be free from discrimination.

These rights are protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which arose from the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act 1993 are the two main human rights laws in New Zealand.

All new legislation should be consistent with the Bill of Rights Act; if there are any inconsistencies the Attorney-General must report these to Parliament when the legislation is introduced and the government must be able to justify them.

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What are my rights under the Bill of Rights Act?

A. Life and security

You have the right not to be:

  • deprived of life;
  • subjected to torture, or to cruel, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment; or
  • subjected to medical or scientific experimentation unless you give permission.

You also have the right to refuse medical treatment.

B. Democratic and civil rights

You have the right to:

  • freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief
  • freedom of expression (eg free speech, freedom of the media)
  • freedom of peaceful assembly (eg to gather in public to protest against an issue)
  • freedom of association

If you are a New Zealand citizen over 18 years old, you have the right to vote and to stand to be a Member of Parliament.

As long as you are lawfully in New Zealand, you can live wherever you like and move freely around the country, to leave the country and to enter the country.

C. Freedom from discrimination, and cultural, linguistic and religious freedom  

You have the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, colour, race, ethnic or national origins, political opinion, age, disability, sexual orientation, employment status and family status.

You also have the right to enjoy and practise the culture, language or religion of any ethnic, religious or linguistic minority you belong to. 

D. Search, arrest and detention

You have the right not to be subjected to:

  • unreasonable search or seizure;
  • arbitrary arrest or detention.

If you’re arrested or detained under the law you have the right to:

  • be told of the reasons for your arrest or detention at that time;
  • remain silent and be told of that right;
  • consult and instruct a lawyer and be told of that right;
  • be charged promptly or released;
  • be brought before a court as quickly as possible, if you are not released;
  • challenge the lawfulness of your detention or arrest in court;
  • be treated with humanity and respect for your dignity.

If you are charged with an offence you have the right to:

  • be told promptly of the nature of the charge
  • be released unless there is just cause for detention
  • consult and instruct a lawyer
  • adequate time and facilities to prepare a defence
  • trial by jury if the penalty includes imprisonment for two years or longer 
  • free legal assistance if you don’t have the means for defence and the interests of justice require it
  • the assistance of an interpreter, free of charge, if you need it

E. Criminal procedures - minimum standards 

If you’re charged with an offence you have the right to a minimum standard of criminal procedure which includes the right to:

  • a fair and public trial by an independent and impartial court;
  • be present at your own trial;
  • be tried without undue delay;
  • be presumed innocent until proven guilty;
  • not be forced to be a witness or to confess guilt;
  • present a defence and cross-examine witnesses;
  • appeal to a higher court against conviction and sentence;
  • be dealt with in a manner that takes account of your age, if you are a child. 

You cannot be charged for something that was not an offence at the time it happened.

If you are convicted, pardoned, or acquitted for/of a particular offence, you cannot be tried or punished for that same offence again. 

F. Justice

If your rights may be affected by the decision of a tribunal or public authority you have the right to:

  • a fair hearing by an unbiased decision-maker;
  • apply for judicial review of that decision.

You have the right to bring civil proceedings against the Crown (or to defend civil proceedings brought by the Crown) - just as you can against an individual.

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What are my options if I believe my rights under the Bill of Rights Act have been breached?

You can apply to the courts to have your claim considered.

If you are already going through the court system and believe your rights under the Act have been breached (for example, while in Police custody) you can ask your lawyer to make the claim on your behalf. If you are successful, the court could order remedies such as a reduction of your sentence.

Because of the costs involved in taking legal action, if you aren’t going through the court system already it is worth getting legal advice to determine the likelihood of a successful claim and to help you with the application. If you can’t afford a lawyer you may be eligible for legal aid. You may also be able to get help from your nearest Community Law Centre.

If your complaint is related to your right to freedom from discrimination, then an alternative to going to court is to make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, under the Human Rights Act.

If your complaint is not about discrimination you can also contact the Human Rights Commission for information and advice about what you can do to resolve the issue.