Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Judges warn cyber-bully law will flood courts

Planned law change would allow victims to approach district courts directly

Courts will be given new powers in the Harmful Digital Communications Bill to order websites to remove content and hand down fines of up to $20k. Photo / Thinkstock
Courts will be given new powers in the Harmful Digital Communications Bill to order websites to remove content and hand down fines of up to $20k. Photo / Thinkstock

District court judges have warned the Government against allowing cyber-bullying victims to take their complaints directly to court, saying that they could be flooded by "meritless" cases.

Judges are concerned at the ease with which vexatious or disgruntled individuals will be able to take legal action under the landmark law changes, which are being considered by a select committee.

Courts will be given new powers in the Harmful Digital Communications Bill to order websites to remove content and hand down fines of up to $20,000.

A person who felt they had been abused online will be able to complain to a new Approved Agency, and if they felt their problem had not been resolved or that they had suffered serious harm they could apply to the district court.

Chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue, submitting on behalf of all district court judges, said the agency should act as a filter for complaints. But in its present form, the bill put the onus on individuals to apply to the district court themselves.

"There may be cases where meritless applications are made by individuals to the district courts after obtaining an unsatisfactory result from the Approved Agency," she said.

"It is submitted that the bill should require all applications to be submitted to the Approved Agency in the first instance, other than those from the police.

"If the Approved Agency is unable to resolve the matter, [it] should be responsible for referring the matter to the district court."

She said the agency should also be able to immediately transfer cases in which a person was clearly in danger to the court.

The Approved Agency role is likely to be assumed by Netsafe, which has been an independent internet watchdog since 1998.

Chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue said the agency should act as a filter for complaints. Photo / NZ Herald
Chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue said the agency should act as a filter for complaints. Photo / NZ Herald

Netsafe head Martin Crocker said the agency received around 500 requests for help a month.

He expected most cases to be resolved through negotiation and resolution, and not court action. This was because most cyber-bullying victims knew their abuser, online bullying was rarely premeditated and harmful communications were typically made through email or popular social media.

Ms Doogue estimated that the district court's workload would increase by 75 days a year - which would require 0.5 full-time equivalent judges.

She said this was likely to require new resources: "Conferring this new jurisdiction will have significant operational implications for the district courts at our current levels of judicial resource."


Crackdown

• A new agency will hear cyber-bullying complaints, investigate them, and attempt to negotiate with parties to resolve cases.

• Individuals who feel they have been harmed, or who have unresolved complaints, can apply to the district court.

• Courts can demand the removal of content, make cease and desist orders, order corrections, and demand a right of reply or apology.

• Courts can issue fines of up to $20,000, convict someone of causing harm or aiding and abetting suicide through digital communication.

- NZ Herald

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