The Bill of Rights Act 

What does the Bill of Rights Act cover?

To get along as a society we need to share a common idea or values about how to live and treat each other. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act provides a framework for people’s relationship with the Government.

The Act sets out a number of rights and freedoms that apply to people (and companies and organisations), and places a limit on the actions of those in government so that these rights and freedoms are not interfered with.

The Act sets out a number of rights for people when they are dealing with all areas of the Government - employees, all departments, courts, state-owned enterprises and local authorities. It protects the civil and political rights of people, as well as (where applicable) companies and organisations. The rights and freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights Act are not absolute rights but are “subject … to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.  For example your right to freedom of expression does not give you the right to say something defamatory (such as making false allegations) about someone. 

The rights protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act are:

A. Life and security rights

You have the right not to be;

  • Deprived of life
  • Subjected to torture, or to cruel, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment
  • 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
  • Freedom of peaceful assembly
  • Freedom of association

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

As long as you are lawfully in New Zealand, you can live and move freely around the country.

C. Non-discrimination and minority rights

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 or religion of any ethnic, religious or linguistic minority you belong to. More information is in the Human Rights Act. 

D. Search, arrest and detention rights

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
  • Keep 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 more than three months imprisonment
  • 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 procedure rights

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 hearing by an impartial court
  • Attend your 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

You cannot be charged for something that was not an offence at the time it happened. If you are convicted, pardoned, or acquitted of an offence you cannot be tried or punished for the same offence again.

F. Justice rights

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, and to defend civil proceedings brought by, the Crown, in the same way as civil proceedings between individuals.

Who do I talk to if the Government has interfered with my rights under the Bill of Rights Act?

If you think the Government has breached your rights, you can apply to the courts to consider your claim. However it costs money to apply to the courts, so you will have to decide if your complaint or breach is worth the money you will need to spend on the claim.

Complaints about the right to freedom from discrimination are free (via the Human Rights Commission), though you will have to pay any lawyer’s fees unless legal aid is available. When considering your claim, the courts will look at any justifications the Government has supplied because sometimes your rights have to be balanced with those of others.