Summary of the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act

Catherine Healy
New Zealand Prostitutes Collective

Dear ECP,

I enclose below as requested information about the Prostitution Reform Act which decriminalised prostitution in New Zealand six years ago.

In summary the law means that street based sex workers can operate without any legal restriction on their sex work, but are subject to public nuisance, noise, litter controls, etc., the same as everyone else; and up to four sex workers can operate together as equals before any person needs a certificate.  Only if someone is in charge of one other (or more) sex worker is a certificate needed.  The certificates are held in confidence by the court, and even the police cannot get access to the names of the people who have issued certificates.  This provides anonymity and protects those sex workers who go backwards and forwards between being sex workers and managers, and do not want to be outed on any database available to the public.

You’ll see the document lists the academic and other evidence used for the Prostitution Law Review Committee and addresses issues of human rights, health, safety, employment conditions, young people, and why people enter and leave the sex industry.

We hope it is useful in informing UK parliamentarians and the public of the benefits and progress we feel have been achieved by the Act.

Best wishes

Catherine Healy


The Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) came into operation in New Zealand in June, 2003.  The PRA decriminalised prostitution; created a framework to safe guard the human rights of sex workers; promoted the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers; and prohibited the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age.  The PRA also established a certification regime for brothel operators, and a framework for territorial authorities to make Bylaws.

The PRA is available online at:

A five year review process was attached to the implementation of the PRA, and the Prostitution Law Review Committee (PLRC) was established to conduct this review. Their findings can be found at:

The PLRC recognises that the PRA was a shift from a moralist approach to prostitution to a health and human rights approach.  Their report was substantiated through evidence based research, drawing on the research of the Crime and Justice Research Centre, (CJRC) Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand and the Christchurch School of Medicine (CSM), Christchurch, New Zealand.

CJRC’s Key Informant Interviews Review of the Prostitution Reform Act, 2003 can be found at:

CSM’s The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers, can be found at:

This overview of the PRA is informed by the CJRC’s Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act, 2003, and outlines the following issues: PRA and Human Rights, Health, Safety and Well-being of Sex Workers, Exiting the Sex Industry, the Brothel Operator Certification System, the Use of Under Age People in Prostitution, Street-Based Sex Workers, Response of Territorial Authorities to the PRA, and Employment Conditions for Sex Workers.

PRA and Human Rights:

The PRA safeguards the right of those under 18 not to be used in sex work; the right of adults not to be forced to engage in sex work, including the right to refuse a particular client or sexual practice; and the right not to be subject to exploitative employment practices.  The research commission for the review found that 90% of sex workers felt that they now have legal rights under the PRA, and over 60% felt they were more able to refuse to provide commercial sexual services.  The PRA has empowered sex workers by removing the illegality of their work, so enabling them to more freely access police support and the employment resolution processes.

Health, Safety and Well-Being of Sex Workers:

The PRA brought the sex industry under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, 1992.  Research indicates that there is a high level of awareness of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) requirements in the sex industry, but compliance cannot be measured as there is no system of regular inspections of brothels by Medical Officers of Health and the Department of Labour.  The majority of sex workers interviewed by the CSMO reported now feeling more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.

Operators of brothels must now adopt and promote safer sex practices. If they are found not to have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that commercial sexual services are provided with prophylactic sheaths or appropriate barriers, or not to displayed or given the correct health information they can be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000.  Sex workers and clients of sex workers must now take all reasonable steps to adopt safer sex practices.  If they do not do so, they are liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $2,000.  (The NZPC is concerned that this provision may be used against sex workers.)

Entering and Exiting the Sex Industry:

According to the research the reasons for entering and exiting the sex industry are various and multi-layered, though the most commonly reported reason for entering the sex industry was financial: 93% of sex workers surveyed by the CSMO cited money as a reason for both entering and staying in the sex industry.  The most significant barriers to exiting the sex industry are loss of income, reluctance to lose flexible working hours, and the sense of belonging and camaraderie some sex workers report.  Currently no model of best practice to assist sex workers to leave the sex industry has been developed.

The Brothel Operator Certification System:

Every operator of a business of prostitution must hold a certificate issued under section 35 of the PRA, every person who does not hold a certificate while operating a brothel is liable to a conviction and fine not exceeding $10,000.  Certificates are obtained from the Registrar of the District Court, Auckland, New Zealand, and remain valid for three years.  Various offences identified in the Act, (Subsection 2 of section 36) disqualify individuals who have committed them, from obtaining a brothel operator certificate.  The PLRC found that the current brothel certification regime is effective, though suggested that a criterion be added to the process, in which a certificate holder must be willing to facilitate inspection by the Department of Labour, of the brothels they manage.  (NZPC is concerned that the certification system is too restrictive and means that only a few people can get certificates). Certification does not apply to small owner operated brothels, ((SOOBs), defined under the PRA as where not more than four sex workers work and where they retain control over their earnings.

The Use of Under Age People in Prostitution:

The PRA makes it an offence to arrange for or to receive, or to facilitate or receive payment for commercial sex services from a person under 18.  It is not an offence for a person under 18 to provide commercial sex services.  The PRA has raised awareness of this issue, and it appears that only 1.3% of the total numbers of sex workers are under the age of 18, and that very few young people who can be termed ‘at risk’ are involved in sex work.  Most importantly, sex workers under the age of 18 are no longer prosecuted for their involvement in sex work.

Street-Based Sex Workers:

The street-based sex work sector comprises 11% of the sex industry, making it the smallest sector of the sex industry.

The research found that the number of street-based sex workers has remained stable since the enactment of the PRA.  The CJRC has suggested a three pronged response to potential problems with street-based sex work: proactive measures taken by local governments such as the provision of lighting and street cleaning; police presence to discourage disorderly behaviour; appropriate services to be provided by NGOs.

Response of Territorial Authorities to the PRA:

The CSOM’s survey of Territorial Authorities (TA’s) regarding the impact of the PRA, has found that TA’s have had no problems with the sex industry and have received few complaints.  Shortly after the enactment of the PRA a number of Territorial Authorities created bylaws and or made changes to their District Plan relating to commercial sex work.  These TA’s have imposed a licensing system, for both large brothels and small owner operated brothels, ((SOOBs), defined under the PRA as where not more than four sex workers work and where they retain control over their earnings).  There have been concerns that these measures could potentially recriminalise those sex workers who for various reasons are unable to comply.  Aspects of a number of these Bylaws, particularly those relating to the location of brothels, have since been over turned, as they were found to violate the PRA.

Employment Conditions for Sex Workers:

For the purposes of the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) a sex worker is ‘at work’ when they are providing sexual services.  Occupational safety and health guidelines have been developed by DOSH in consultation with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), sex workers and brothel operators.

These guidelines are available:

The illegal status of sex work related activities prior to the enactment of the PRA meant that sex workers were open to coercion and exploitation by employers.  The CJRC states that, ‘the enactment of the PRA has empowered sex workers by removing the taint of criminality from their occupation’.  Research indicates that post the PRA there has been some improvement in employment conditions for sex workers.  The CJRC suggests that while best practice employment contracts should be developed for the sex industry, they also acknowledge the importance of maintaining a flexible approach to employment status.  Some sex workers may prefer the certainty of employee status, others the flexibility of independent contractor status.  Further work on best practice models for employment, and health and safety conditions needs to be done in consultation with NZPC, sex workers, brothel operators, the Department of Labour and the DOSH.