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Citizens and the law

Universal rights and New Zealanders

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Citizens and the law

All societies are based on rules, both written and unwritten. Though rules can be annoying, they enable us to interact with other people and organisations.

In some societies, the rules allow the strong to prey on the weak, or those with power to treat outsiders as if they were less than human. In New Zealand, we have written rules to protect against such situations. New Zealand is often ranked among the top half-dozen countries in the world in its respect for human rights.

We have rights that ensure a fair trial if accused of a crime, rights to free speech, rights to privacy and to information, rights to fair treatment from those who sell us products and services, and rights to financial support from government when things are tough. This benefits both our economy and our society.

But the rights we enjoy come with duties, too. The laws that protect us also constrain our actions. We need to recognise that others also have rights, which we should respect.

Unfortunately, there are those who decline, or find themselves unable, to participate in such a rules-based society. In the past, we have tended to respond to those who commit crimes with punishment. This has not tended to deter further transgression.

The emphasis now is on reducing crime by rehabilitation of offenders, and – more importantly – prevention. In the last few years there have been encouraging moves towards a co-ordinated approach in which agencies work together to help young people find a constructive place in society.

Other agencies, such as those fostering rights, try to prevent people from becoming alienated from society.

Still others focus on developing, through citizenship education, an informed and responsible body of citizens willing and able to discuss and debate the Parliament, government and law of their country (and indeed of the international community).

Citizenship education also seeks the creation of a strong civil society, the promotion of certain widely respected values, better cross-cultural relationships, and even new political structures.

Understanding the link between citizenship and law is helped by the aims and achievement objectives of the New Zealand social studies curriculum. In studying social organisation, students are taught to demonstrate knowledge of

  • how participation within groups involves both responsibilities and rights
  • how and why people make and implement rules and laws
  • how and why people seek to gain and maintain social justice and human rights
  • how and why people seek to safeguard the rights of consumers.

The social sciences curriculum project, involving public consultation by the New Zealand Ministry of education in 2006, focused on

  • people's identity and role as citizens.

This focus for learning in secondary schools leads in turn to social inquiry through which students will understand

  • people have different roles, rights and responsibilities as part of their participation in groups
  • cultural interaction impacts on cultures and societies
  • contestable interpretations of the past that have consequences for the present
  • international organisations are established to protect social justice and human rights.

The United Nations is a source of suggested rules, many of which New Zealand adopts, through Parliament and government actions, as its own. Law within and between nations can assist people to maintain social justice, advance their rights, and participate in the society, economy and political life.

How law works seeks to give readers a broad understanding of how laws affect our society and are made, how the legal system works, the rights we enjoy, how to get help with rights and the law, and how we deal with those who break the rules. It contains briefings from some of the key agencies involved. It suggests further inquiry and action.

Find out more!

Centre for Citizenship Education
Box 3978, Wellington
Mobile: 027 242 2301

Updated from the DecisionMaker 2002 and earlier editions by Anthony Haas, 5 March 2006



















Judges admit young lawyers to the bar - authorising those who have qualfied to represent citizens in the courts


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