Here’s what the police and the Human Rights Commission told us about action pursued so far.
In the 15 months since the Conversion Practices Prohibition legislation came into force, no legal action has been launched under either the criminal or civil strands of the law. The Human Rights Commission cautions that there is no cause for alarm, but some are concerned about a lack of police initiative on one hand and a “bureaucratic jungle” on the other.
Police had not received any complaints nor launched any investigations, detective inspector Warren Olsson told The Spinoff in response to an official information request. For its part, the Human Rights Commission said it had received 33 inquiries, but none has been formally escalated into the civil redress process.
Under the act, which came into force in February 2022, practices – including “conversion therapy” – undertaken with “the intention of changing or suppressing the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression” become a criminal offence where that person is under 18 or their decision-making is impaired, as well as cases in which “serious harm” is caused.
An alternative approach provided by the act is the civil redress pathway. Launched in August 2022, it is overseen by the Human Rights Commission, which is tasked with pursuing dispute resolution and mediation where possible. If that is unsuccessful, it can be advanced to a civil proceeding with the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Neither the criminal nor civil strand is retrospective.
“We are pleased with the numbers to date,” said Andre Afamasaga, a former pastor and survivor of conversion practices now at the Human Right Commission. “The act was not passed with the aim of generating prosecutions, or on the belief that significant numbers of people were affected by the practices, but because they significantly harm an already vulnerable group of people.”
The commission characterises its complaint process as “free, safe, private and confidential for everyone involved. It helps people to discuss issues in an open, safe and constructive way. The process can help both sides agree to a fair result.”
Afamasaga added, by email: “The act is not retrospective so many survivors are not in the timeframe.” He further pointed to “significant barriers” that they “need to overcome to come forward”. Those include “high levels of controlling indoctrination that isolate them from outside information and support, or even from independent news sources and peer-reviewed scientific evidence”, as well as, for many, “paralysing levels of shame and stigma that prevent them reaching out for help. This is particularly strong for people who once pursued conversion practices for themselves.”
Given those factors, “we expect the number of enquiries to remain lower than with other matters within the commission’s scope”, he told The Spinoff. “The commission does provide a pathway for civil redress but a key part of our work is to provide information and education about the harm caused by conversion practices and the new legislation.”
Of the 33 who had inquired with the commission, some had been directly affected, while others were concerned about third parties or seeking resources or guidance on the law. The commission was allocated $2.25m for the period from 2021 to 2023 to resource the response to the new law, but was not expecting further funding.
“Tackling ideologies that lead to conversion practices will take years and an all-of-society approach,” Afamasaga said. “With only baseline funding levels available, groups needing education about conversion practices may have to rely on online resources when leaders are telling us in-person delivery is needed due to the sensitive subject matter.”
Shaneel Lal, co-founder of the Conversion Therapy Action Group, which advocated for the legislation, said that while they had not “expected an immediate spike” in prosecutions, “a lack of trust in the institution” meant many in the queer community were wary of approaching police, while the civil redress route risked amounting to a “bureaucratic jungle”, said Lal, with “the onus on the part of the victim”. It was questionable, they added, whether the funding was sufficient to adequately handle the response.
The requirement for a sign-off by the attorney general in criminal prosecutions was another hurdle that worked to dissuade both potential complainants and the police, Lal said. David Parker’s office confirmed that no requests for prosecution to be consented had been received.
Lal was disappointed by a “lack of initiative” on the part of the police, with no sign of investigation into allegations of conversion therapy at Bethlehem College in Tauranga and in the counselling practice of David Riddell in Nelson. In the latter example, Riddell said he would continue to offer conversion therapy through his Living Wisdom School.
Riddell told RNZ in June 2022 he would still be providing “misbelief therapy” to clients who were “conflicted with unwanted same sex attraction”. He said: “Contrary to what the gay juggernaut would have you believe, not everyone who experiences same-sex attraction welcomes it.” David Riddell did not respond to emailed questions about whether he maintains that position or is aware of any complaints or investigations.
For the Christian lobby group Family First, which advocated against the legislation, the lack of action being pursued under the act supports its view that “this law was always a solution looking for a problem”.
The conversion therapy legislation attracted more than 105,000 public submissions, a record high. “In banning conversion practices in New Zealand, we join other countries around the world in sending a clear message that all people, including young people, deserve to be protected, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” said then justice minister Kris Faafoi. “All people, including rainbow communities, deserve to have their rights and dignity protected, and to live their lives freely just as they are.”