Kathryn McPhillips, Executive Director for HELP Auckland, responds to the lack of protections for children and young people in New Zealand facing sexual abuse. 

In light of the recent guilty verdict of a man who faced 33 charges of child sexual abuse at the Manukau District Court, HELP Auckland is calling for the Government to review and amend laws around consent. The media narrative and public opinion expressed outrage that a defence lawyer stated a 12 year-old plaintiff was having consensual sex with a man 20 years her senior. HELP Auckland shares this outrage and wishes to shed light on a lesser known part of the problem… That our law currently permits these unethical arguments.

Under the Sexual Violence Legislation Act (2021) judges should disallow questions they consider to be improper or unfair. Although this should reduce situations like this occurring, it is not enough. As it stands, New Zealand law allows adults to accuse children of having consented to sex if the charge against the adult is sexual violation. We can see from the report, That’s a lie, from the office of the Chief Victims’ Advisor, that some defence lawyers are insinuating that children as young as six years old have consented to sexual abuse by a grandparent. 

As specialists in the field of supporting survivors of sexual violence through the criminal justice system, HELP Auckland knows these are not unique or isolated cases. The Youth19 survey of New Zealand high school students found that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys had experienced sexual abuse through their lives. The figures are staggering, and our laws are currently inadequate. 

We urgently need to amend consent law in Aotearoa to clarify that children cannot be considered to have consented to sexual activity with an adult. Sexual behaviour between adults and children is always the responsibility of the adult, and children hold no blame for what is done to them. Young people are also calling for reform to protect them. Without clarity in the law about what constitutes as consent, many think it is okay to have sex with someone if they are unable to physically object or say no. 

“It is integral that we have clear and affirmative consent laws to keep our youth safe,” said youth activist Layba Zubair. “Reformation of these laws will allow us as a country to take a step forward towards creating a safer Aotearoa, and to contribute towards creating a system that supports survivors of rape and assault.” 

Some jurisdictions addressed these issues years ago – Tasmania and Canada have long required people to obtain consent.  In late 2021, New South Wales also adopted laws which require a person to confirm if the other person consents before the sexual activity occurs, rather than to just assume. It is time for Aotearoa to do the same. 

Dear Em, a collective which provides a platform to empower and support young women, have joined forces with Layba Zubair to launch a petition urging the House of Representatives to reform our consent law. Please join us in signing the petition, and follow their movement @consentlawreformnz on Instagram.