Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Govt speeds cyber bullying laws

Inciting someone to commit suicide will be punishable with up to three years in jail under tough new cyber-bullying laws to be unveiled today.

The new laws, fast-tracked by Justice Minister Judith Collins after a Herald campaign to "stop the bullying" last year, will also create a new offence of using a communications device to cause harm, punishable with up to three months in jail or a $2000 fine.

The Cabinet has adopted proposals put up by the Law Commission last August with one major exception - it has dropped a proposed new tribunal to administer complaints about cyber-bullying and has handed the job to the district courts.

Mrs Collins told ministers in a Cabinet paper that "in assigning cases, account would be taken of a particular judge's interest, understanding and expertise in new media law".

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said some countries had created new cyber-bullying offences but New Zealand was leading the world in constructing a formal process to support the law changes.

His agency, a non-profit society that is mainly funded by the Education Ministry to help schools deal with internet and texting issues, is in the running to become an "approved agency" that will try to resolve complaints quickly, leaving only about 100 cases a year expected to go to the courts.

Mr Cocker said the agency might have to handle perhaps 1000 complaints a year and would be "probably looking at doubling or tripling" its current $1 million annual budget to cope.

The Cabinet paper says the justice sector has committed to staying within existing budget baselines until 2020, so any extra costs for the cyber agency "should be met from existing sources or through reprioritisation".

The proposed new offence of incitement to suicide will apply to all forms of incitement, not just through texting or the internet. It is already a crime to incite someone to suicide if the victim does actually attempt or commit suicide, but the new law will apply even if they don't.

Wellington media lawyer Steven Price said the change would plug a "gap in the law".

"It's been more obviously a gap because you can do it more hurtfully these days, for all the reasons that online harassment multiplies the harm," he said.

Rotorua girl Hayley-Ann Fenton committed suicide in 2009 after receiving threatening texts from the wife of her 27-year-old boyfriend Pelesasa Tiumalu, who was later jailed for having sex with a minor.

The other new offence of using a communications device to cause harm has yet to be drafted. The Law Commission said it should be illegal to send any message that is "grossly offensive", "indecent, obscene or menacing" or "knowingly false", but the Cabinet paper says this needs to be reworded to include material that is posted online but not sent to anyone.

Courts will also get powers to order individuals, internet service providers and social media sites such as Facebook to remove or correct harmful material, apologise, give complainants a right of reply, and disclose the identity of anonymous sources.

Mrs Collins said children under 14 would not be prosecuted for the new criminal offences such as incitement to suicide. "That is where [Police] Youth Aid would normally get involved," she said.

*Read the Cabinet paper and the appendix.


New offences

Inciting suicide: penalty up to three years' jail.

Using a communications device to cause harm: three months' jail or $2000 fine.

- NZ Herald

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