This article is focused on New Zealand law and explains issues from a Common law perspective.

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How to know your civil liberties in New Zealand


Civil liberties are the personal rights that we as New Zealanders inherently enjoy. These are rights such as:

  • freedom of speech and freedom of the press (see How to understand restrictions on freedom of the media)
  • freedom of religion
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention and from unreasonable search and seizure
  • the right to a fair trial
  • the right to be free from discrimination
  • the right to vote if you are a permanent resident and 18 years old (see How to: Your voting rights)
  • the right to marry and to have a family
  • the right to work
  • the right to own and to bequeath property

These rights are legally protected and enforced in New Zealand in a number of different ways.

Enforcement of the New Zealand Bill of Rights

A number of these rights are contained in the NEW ZEALAND BILL OF RIGHTS ACT 1990, such as the right to be free from arbitrary arrest or detention and the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

If a right under the Bill of Rights is infringed you may in certain cases be able to sue the Government for damages, as the state is directly liable as the guarantor of the rights and freedoms contained in the Bill. In addition to this general means of enforcement, you may be able to obtain compensation for a breach of the Bill of Rights by bringing a civil action under some specific heading, such as assault, battery, false imprisonment or negligence.

The right to be free from arbitrary arrest or detention contained in the Bill of Rights can be specifically enforced through the courts by bringing a writ for habeus corpus (which means "produce the body"), in which case you must be released if your arrest or detention was not lawful. The right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is also protected indirectly in the criminal court process by the rules of evidence, in that evidence may not be admissible against you if it was obtained in breach of this right.

Protection from discrimination

The HUMAN RIGHTS ACT 1993 (and also the Bill of Rights) protects you from discrimination, and provides for your rights to be enforced by complaints to the Human Rights Commission (see How to complain to the Human Rights Commission) and to the Race Relation Office (see How to complain to the Race Relations Office).

Review by the courts of decisions of government officials

The courts' have a general jurisdiction to ensure that government officials comply with the statutory powers under which they act. Accordingly, you may challenge the decisions of Government departments and other public agencies that affect you by bringing an action in the High Court for "judicial review" of the decision.

In general the court will not look at the substantive decision made, but will rather look at the process by which the decision was made, including for example, whether there were any mistakes of fact or of law, whether all relevant factors were considered, and whether the requirements of natural justice were complied with. If the court upholds your challenge, it may require the decision-maker to reconsider the matter.

Complaints to the United Nations

New Zealand is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Consequently, complaints about infringements of civil liberties in New Zealand may be taken all the way to the United Nations, in which case they may be heard by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Challenging existing laws

New Zealanders have the right to challenge unjust laws. This can be done through political pressure exerted through a variety of means, from lobbying to active protest (see How to exercise your rights of protest).

The Treaty of Waitangi

Another important collection of basic principles, sometimes recognised by the courts as having a quasi-constitutional status, are contained in the Treaty of Waitangi.

Suspension of civil rights in emergencies

There are certain dire circumstances in which it is legal, and perhaps desirable, that some civil liberties be infringed, that is, where the Government declares a state of emergency in cases of natural disaster. In these cases, some restrictions may be placed on civil liberties - for example, a curfew.

Cautionary notes
  • The area of civil rights and their enforcement can be complex. If you suspect that one of your basic civil liberties has been breached, you should consult a lawyer; your lawyer will be able to inform you whether a right has in fact been breached and whether there are any means by which you can obtain compensation or some other form of redress.

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