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Community life

Going to the police: When the criminal law can help with harassment

Causing harm by cyberbullying (Harmful Digital Communications Act)

Intentionally causing harm through “digital communications”

Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, s 22(1); s 4 (definitions of “digital communication”, “posts a digital communication”)

It’s a criminal offence for someone to cause you serious emotional distress by posting a “digital communication” if they intended to cause you harm. The other person can only be convicted if an ordinary reasonable person in your position would have been harmed by what happened (see below).

The term “digital communication” covers the full range of online, electronic and digital communications. It can include sending you text or emails, or posting online comments about you on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites or in an online forum or blog, or posting intimate photographs or video of you online (as “revenge porn” for example).

Factors the judge will consider

Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, s 22(2)

In deciding whether an ordinary reasonable person in your position would have been caused serious emotional distress by what happened, the judge can take into account:

  • how extreme the language was (if it involved language)
  • how old you are and your other characteristics
  • whether the post, message or other communication was anonymous
  • whether it was repeated
  • how many people saw it
  • whether it was true or false (if it was a statement)
  • the context in which the communication appeared.

What the penalty for this offence?

Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, s 22(3)

If the person is convicted, they can be jailed for up to two years or fined up to $50,000. If it’s a company, it can be fined up to $200,000.

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Harassment and bullying

Where to go for more support

Community Law


Your local Community Law Centre can provide free initial legal advice and information.

Victims Information


Phone: 0800 650 654
Email: victimsinfo@justice.govt.nz

This is the website of the government’s “Victims Centre”. The site provides links to a range of services available to help victims deal with the practical and emotional effects of the crime, at each stage of the criminal and youth justice process.

Human Rights Commission


Phone: 0800 496 877
Email: infoline@hrc.co.nz

The Human Rights Commission website has information about your rights if you’re sexually or racially harassed:

“Sexual harassment” guide

Racial harassment

Harassment and bullying in the workplace


The Worksafe New Zealand website has information and guidance about workplace bullying:

YouthLaw Aotearoa


Phone: 0800 UTHLAW (0800 884 529)
Email: nzyouthlaw@gmail.com

YouthLaw provides free legal advice for young people throughout New Zealand. Their website provides great information for young people about the law around harassment and bullying.

Ministry of Justice

Applying for a Harmful Digital Communications Order

This has information about applying to a District Court judge for a “take down” order or other type of action when you’ve suffered serious emotional distress because of cyberbullying:


Help with online bullying, abuse and harassment


Go to this website for free and confidential help if you’ve been bullied, abused or harassed online. NetSafe has been appointed by the government to be a free information service and complaints agency under the Harmful Digital Communications Act.

NZ Police


This police webpage lists a number of phone counselling services and websites that can help.

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