NZSL Act Review 2011 - Cabinet paper

This is the Minister for Disability Issues' paper to Cabinet on the review of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006, which was discussed by Ministers in October 2011.

What's on this page


1. This paper informs Cabinet of the results of the review of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 and how I, as Minister for Disability Issues, intend to advance its implementation.

Executive summary

2. The New Zealand Sign Language Act (NZSL Act) came into force on 11 April 2006. Section 11 of the NZSL Act requires me to report on its operation and whether amendments to its scope are necessary or desirable, as soon as practicable, three years after it came into force.

3. In carrying out the review, I was obliged to consult with representatives of the Deaf community on the matters to be considered in the report – this was done. Over 180 Deaf individuals contributed to submissions.

4. Findings from the review confirm that the scope and content of the legislation should remain unchanged. However, a number of actions have been recommended to support better implementation of the NZSL Act. These will be progressed by a programme of work through the Ministerial Committee on Disability Issues.

5. The New Zealand Sign Language Act Review 2011 (the review) will be tabled in the House of Representatives on the next sitting day following Cabinet’s consideration of this paper, and then made public along with this paper on the Office for Disability Issues website. Key points of the review will be translated into New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).


6.  Approximately 24,000 New Zealanders are able to use NZSL. The best estimate of the number of people who use NZSL as their primary means of communication is 4,000. This is the group that the NZSL Act is intended to support.

7. The NZSL Act came into force on 11 April 2006 to promote and maintain the use of NZSL. The NZSL Act seeks to do this in four ways. It:

  • makes NZSL one of New Zealand's three official languages
  • allows Deaf people to use NZSL in specified legal proceedings and requires the provision of competent interpreters
  • allows the Government to make regulations about matters in the NZSL Act, including competency standards for NZSL interpreters
  • states that government departments should be guided, where it is reasonably practicable to do so, by the following principles:
    • the Deaf community should be consulted on matters relating to NZSL (including, for example, the promotion of the use of NZSL)
    • NZSL should be used in the promotion to the public of government services and in the provision of information to the public
    • government services and information should be made accessible to the Deaf community through the use of appropriate means (including the use of NZSL).

8. I announced the review on 30 April 2010 and sought feedback from the Deaf community in early 2011. The deadline for submissions was extended to 11 April 2011 because of the disruption from the Canterbury earthquakes. Forty-one submissions were received, including some in NZSL. Eighteen community meetings of Deaf people were held about the review around the country and submissions were received from 10 of these. Submitters included key institutions and organisations working in the Deaf sector, including the Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Health and Disability Commissioner, Deaf Aotearoa, interpreters’ professional bodies and academics.

9. Key government departments that were most likely to interact with Deaf people were contacted to identify their policies and practices in relation to NZSL. Not all government departments were contacted.

Operation of the NZSL Act

10. The findings of the review were as follows.

General comments

11. NZSL has gained in status since the NZSL Act was passed. More non-Deaf people are now aware of NZSL. Promotion through New Zealand Sign Language Week, and more use by government agencies, has supported NZSL status and enhanced community awareness to some degree. Many of the activities promoting the use of NZSL have come from the Deaf community itself, sometimes with government funding, eg NZSL Week and the translation of the National Anthem into NZSL.

12. The Canterbury earthquakes have had a significant impact on the promotion of the NZSL Act, through the use of NZSL interpreters at media conferences following the February 2011 earthquake. The use of NZSL generated a national awareness about the rights and interests of the Deaf community and their information requirements.

13. Since the NZSL Act came into force, expectations among the Deaf community have heightened for the use of NZSL to provide information on or access to government services. These expectations have not necessarily been met by government to date.

Official language status

14. Making NZSL an official language has had positive outcomes for the Deaf community. Deaf people are more confident using NZSL and in requesting NZSL interpreters. More non-Deaf people are aware of Deaf people and their use of NZSL.

15. The NZSL Act does not spell out what rights and responsibilities come with being designated an official language but the Deaf community had an expectation that there would be greater use of NZSL at official events. The review found that NZSL is not regularly used or integrated into official events by government agencies.

16. Several submitters noted that because the NZSL Act had not been translated into NZSL many people in the Deaf community were unaware of their rights under the NZSL Act. The Office for Disability Issues has now completed this translation and it will be available on its website. A limited number of DVDs of the translation will be distributed to the Deaf community via Deaf Aotearoa and Deaf clubs.

The right to use NZSL in legal proceedings

17. The NZSL Act requires that, in specified courts and tribunals, any member of the court, the parties involved, witnesses, counsel or any other person agreed to by the presiding officer, whose first or preferred language is NZSL, may use NZSL in proceedings.

18. In 2006, the Ministry of Justice issued instructions to these specified courts and tribunals identifying the qualifications for a competent interpreter and the legal proceedings where it will pay for an NZSL interpreter. For the most part, these instructions seem to be working.

19. Most of the submitters indicated that they had little or no experience of the justice sector. Some submitters identified a need for training court staff in how to work with an interpreter to communicate with a Deaf person. Some submitters also felt there was a lack of readily available information about the process for arranging and hiring qualified NZSL interpreters.

20. The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing its policies for the use of interpreters and translators in courts (these apply to all languages, not specifically NZSL). The revised information, due to be released on 1 October 2011, includes clear instructions on how to apply to have an interpreter present at a court hearing and the requirement for all interpreters to be qualified. A complaints process is also being developed for the use of interpreters in court.

Making government departments’ information accessible to Deaf people

21. Several government departments have begun providing NZSL video, either on their websites or on DVDs, about their services and key information. However, a scan of government websites by the Human Rights Commission found little use of NZSL and they submitted that this needed to improve.

22. Information can be made accessible for Deaf people by preparing Plain English or Easy to Read English versions of material on departmental websites. Texting, emails and interactive websites can also be used. Commonsense dictates the situations where NZSL is necessary to reach its target audience eg for important news, life-threatening situations or urgent information.

Accessibility of government services for Deaf people

23. While most government agencies contacted had clear policies for using NZSL interpreters when communicating with Deaf people seeking access to government information and services, these were not always followed by their staff.

24. Submitters wanted more interpreters and also wanted competency standards to be developed for interpreters used by government agencies. Only a few saw a need for these standards to be set in regulations.

25. The use of newly available technologies, such as video remote interpreting or video conferencing in courts, could be used to improve the availability of interpreters.

Scope and content of the legislation

26. Submitters sought a range of extensions to the scope of the legislation. This included strong support for the establishment of a NZSL Commission, similar to the Māori Language Commission, to better promote and monitor the use of NZSL.

27. Strong support was also expressed for the NZSL Act to cover broadcasting, in order to give NZSL users more access to broadcast information and also to promote awareness of NZSL. 

28. Support was sought for the NZSL Act to cover the right to use NZSL in education – primary, secondary and tertiary – and to provide more NZSL resourcing for early childhood education for deaf children and their families. Submitters saw access to language and education affecting everything in Deaf people’s lives. I note Government’s new strategy Success for all: every school, every child is designed to help address this. Under this strategy, funding for specialist teachers of Deaf children will be consolidated and managed through the two Deaf education centres, to support the needs of individual Deaf children wherever they are being educated.

29. Submitters wanted to extend the right to use NZSL to include a wider range of justice settings eg victim support, reporting a crime, requesting assistance to deal with harassment and domestic disputes. Submitters also sought to ensure that Deaf people have full access to NZSL in all situations eg weddings, funerals, and school interviews.

30. Crown entities are not obliged to provide NZSL interpreters under the NZSL Act or to translate information on their services into NZSL, but they are bound by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and are required to have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Crown entities that provide government services, particularly ACC, Housing New Zealand Corporation and District Health Boards, have an obligation to support the communication needs of Deaf people through the use of NZSL or alternative mechanisms to communicate with Deaf people. Submitters report that this is not always happening.

31. Officials advised me that no change was necessary to the legislation. Improved promotion of NZSL, improved access to interpreters in the wider justice system, and in other areas, and improved access to broadcasting and education can occur without amendments to legislation.

Actions to support better implementation of the NZSL Act

32. As a result of submissions, the following actions are suggested to support better implementation of the NZSL Act:

  • government departments organising official events should continue to work on incorporating greater use of NZSL and/or provide NZSL interpreters
  • Ministers could take up opportunities to model best practice by including a NZSL greeting when giving speeches, alongside use of Māori
  • government agencies providing services should produce accessible information on their services, including NZSL where reasonable, and place it on their websites
  • government departments providing services to the public should ensure that their staff have been trained on how to communicate with Deaf people and how to engage with NZSL interpreters
  • departments need to have clear processes for hiring and/or funding interpreters
  • government departments should report annually to the Office for Disability Issues, as part of their reporting on their implementation of the New Zealand Disability Strategy, on the number of meetings with Deaf clients where qualified NZSL interpreters were, or were not, provided
  • further information and training for court staff should build on progress already made on how and when to use NZSL interpreters in legal proceedings
  • to address the shortage of NZSL interpreters, the Ministry of Social Development will work with the Ministry of Economic Development to investigate options for making the use of video remote interpreting available to government departments
  • Crown entities that provide government services to the public, including ACC, Housing New Zealand Corporation and District Health Boards, should be reminded by their Ministers to ensure that people are not discriminated against on the basis of their lack of hearing.

33. I intend to consider the suggestions made in the review and develop a programme of work to enhance the NZSL Act’s implementation, reporting through the Ministerial Committee on Disability Issues. This programme will prioritise activities from within existing budgets. This will be done within the context of the Disability Action Plan, in conjunction with Deaf people. The NZSL Act legislation allows for the reporting of the Act’s implementation through the progress reports on the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

34. A copy of the review is attached. I intend to table this review in the House of Representatives on the next sitting day following Cabinet’s consideration of this paper, and then it will be made public on the Office for Disability Issues’ website. Key points of the review will be translated into NZSL.


35. The following departments have been consulted and their comments incorporated into the paper: the Ministries of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, Culture and Heritage, Economic Development, Education, Health, Justice, Pacific Island Affairs, Social Development, Youth Development; the Departments of Corrections, Internal Affairs; Te Puni Kōkiri and New Zealand Police. The following Crown entities were also consulted: ACC and Housing New Zealand Corporation. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has been informed.

Financial implications

36. There are no additional financial implications arising from this paper. Actions taken by government agencies will occur within existing baselines.

Disability perspective and human rights implications

37. This paper identifies how one group of disabled people, Deaf people who use NZSL, are realising their rights to justice and to communicate and access information. I intend to progress a work programme, through the Ministerial Committee on Disability Issues, to improve implementation of the NZSL Act.

Regulatory impact and compliance cost statement

38. There are no regulatory or compliance cost implications in the paper and attached report.

Gender and legislative implications

39. There are no gender or legislative implications in this paper.


40. Once the review has been presented to the House of Representatives, I will release a media statement summarising its conclusions and recommendations.

41. The review and this Cabinet paper will be placed on the Office for Disability Issues’ website, including key findings translated into NZSL. The release of the review will be publicised more generally through the Office for Disability Issues monthly email update.


42. It is recommended that the Committee:

1. note that the Minister for Disability Issues is required to review the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006, as soon as practicable three years after the Act came into force, and present the results to the House of Representatives

2. note that the Minister for Disability Issues proposes to table the New Zealand Sign Language Act Review 2011 in the House of Representatives on the next sitting day following Cabinet’s consideration of the paper

3. note that no changes to the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 are being considered

4. note that the Ministerial Committee on Disability Issues will consider a programme of work to improve implementation of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006

5. note that the review and this Cabinet paper will be placed on the Office for Disability Issues website.

Hon Tariana Turia
Minister for Disability Issues