Law Commission releases Ministerial Briefing Paper and draft Bill on cyber-bullying

Tuesday 4th September 2012

In a proposal that, if adopted, would put New Zealand on par with jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, the Law Commission has released a Ministerial Briefing Paper and an accompanying draft Bill aimed at combating cyber-bullying in New Zealand.[1]

The Law Commission’s work was fast tracked by Parliament this year, following incidents such as the posting on YouTube of a video taken from a cell phone showing girls at a Wanganui High School beating a fellow student unconscious and a spate of similar incidents overseas, including where cyber-bullying has resulted in the victim’s suicide.

The principal recommendations of the Ministerial Briefing Paper include:

  • Introducing a new offence, applicable to those 14yrs old and above, to target digital communications which are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” and cause harm; 
  • The establishment of approved agencies (such as NetSafe) to conduct mediation of complaints about cyber-bullying;
  • The establishment of a Communications Tribunal comprising a District Court Judge and an expert internet advisor to deal with complaints about cyber-bullying that are not resolved at mediation;
  • Increasing awareness and appropriate management of cyber-bullying in schools.

The Bill seeks to implement the above recommendations and provides a framework for a Communications Tribunal to hear complaints of cyber-bullying made by not only the victims of cyber-bullying, but also their parents and guardians (where appropriate), School Principals and the Police.  The Tribunal would consider serious complaints involving significant harm to the victim, against a set of broad communication principles.  The remedies that the Tribunal would be able to order include an apology from and naming of the offender, as well as the correction of material, removal of harmful material, and provision of details of an offending party from website owners. 

The Tribunal itself would not be able to award monetary compensation or impose criminal sanctions, but non-compliance with any order made by the Tribunal would see the non-complying party liable upon conviction to a fine of up to $5,000 or up to three months’ imprisonment.  In cases of serious offending, an amendment to the Summary Offences Act 1981 would see an offender face upon conviction a fine of up to $2,000 or up to three months’ imprisonment. 

The Bill would also amend other relevant legislation including the Human Rights Act 1990 and the Crimes Act 1981.

[1] Law Commission:  Ministerial Briefing Paper “Harmful Digital Communications: The adequacy of the current sanctions and remedies” August 2012;  Communications (New Media) Bill 2012.

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