Student Rights

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Students’ rights in the disciplinary process: Natural justice principles

What rights does a student have in the discipline process?

New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990, s 27

The law sets out specific processes that schools have to follow when standing down, suspending or expelling students (see see “Stand-downs, suspensions and expulsions”). But in all situations when students are being disciplined by schools, even when the law doesn’t set out detailed processes, students have the protection of some basic legal principles – called “natural justice”. In short, natural justice means you have to be treated fairly, and decisions affecting your rights (a suspension for example) should be made using fair processes.

These natural justice principles are guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, which covers all bodies and individuals that are carrying out a public judicial (that is, court-like) function – this includes teachers, principals and school boards making disciplinary decisions.

Education Act 1989, s 13(c)

The part of the Education Act that deals with stand-downs, suspensions and expulsions specifically refers to natural justice, saying that one of the purposes of that part of the Act is to make sure that natural justice principles are followed in these cases.

What are the principles of natural justice that apply to students?

Natural justice will usually require a school to do the following things when disciplining a student:

  • Right to be heard – You have the right to speak and be heard. If a teacher thinks you’ve broken a school rule, they should talk to you and tell you exactly what the problem is and how the rule has been breached. They should also explain the effects of what you’ve done, if any, on others at the school. You should then be given a chance to explain what happened. You should only be punished if you can’t give a reasonable explanation.
  • No prejudging – The school has to approach its decision with an open mind, without prejudging your case.
  • No bias or personal motives – The school has to make its decision without bias and in good faith, without any personal malice towards you or any other improper motives.
  • Flexibility – When it’s deciding how to deal with any misconduct or rule-breaking, the school can’t follow an inflexible rule or policy (for example that any student found with alcohol will be suspended). The school has to consider your particular circumstances, weigh up all the factors, and consider all the available options.