Conversion therapy ban: Advocates fear prosecution threshold in law banning conversion practices is 'unattainable'

The Government has unveiled its long-awaited legislation banning gay conversion therapy, but advocates fear the prosecution threshold is "unattainable".  

The law change will make it illegal to carry out conversion practices if they cause serious harm, and those who break the law could face prison sentences of up to five years

Shaneel Lal was told they could be changed.

"A church leader walked up to me and offered to pray my gay away," Lal told Newshub. 

Paul Stevens had an experience too. 

"I was told that there was fundamentally something wrong with me and that through counselling and through talking through the issues as they saw them, that I would be able to change my sexuality."

The practice, called conversion therapy, is considered junk science and can be incredibly harmful. 

"Conversion therapy drives people to want to kill themself," Lal says. 

After months of stalling, the Government has finally introduced legislation to ban the practice in New Zealand.

"There can be no justification for trying to force someone to change their sexualality or gender identity," Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said on Friday when announcing the legislation. 

The proposed law would make it an offence to perform conversion practice on anyone under 18. That carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

It would also be an offence to practice conversion on anyone of any age if it causes "serious" harm. The maximum penalty for that is five years. Consent will not be a defence.

But Lal says the "serious harm"  bar is too high.

"This provision would ultimately become redundant because queer people would not be able to reach the unattainble requirements for harm."

Faafoi says the purpose of the legislation is not to criminalise people but to "prevent harm", because it is "already happening in our communities". 

The issue dominated Pride festivities this year. Pride director Max Tweedie says the law change will protect the rainbow community.

"It means there's a definite message that's being sent to those that offer conversion practices today that's 'sorry, we're out of the dark ages and we're moving on as a society'."

The Māori Party and the Greens back the Bill. ACT supports banning conversion, but is still considering this particular legislation. And as for National, it's a bit split - leader Judith Collins wants a ban

"We just think that is inhumane, actually, in today's world," she said earlier this year. 

But former leader Simon Bridges had some concerns

"I personally do have a wider concern. That is freedom of speech," he told The AM Show. 

Faafoi says politics should be left out of the debate. 

"Out of respect for this issue, there should be no politics in it."

Because Labour has an outright majority, they don't need the support of anyone to pass this legislation, which begs the question: what took so long?