Launch of family violence discussion document

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 - 10:25

It’s a pleasure being here this morning and thank you Allan Cooke for the warm welcome.

First, may I acknowledge our gracious hosts, Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, for hosting us here this morning and the Family Law Section of the Law Society for their continued support.

Nine months into the job, I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying being Minister of Justice.

It’s a fascinating area of work. On the one hand you can do so much in a day that impacts and improves peoples’ lives, but on the other presents enormous challenges which, at times, can seem insurmountable.

I’m immensely proud to be at the helm of the Justice Sector, particularly as we deliver some outstanding results for New Zealanders and their families.

But the one thing I’ve learned is that there’s always more work to be done.

Which is why I’m here this morning – to kick-start a national conversation around family violence and how we can better prevent it.

Reducing crime and the impact of crime

New Zealanders deserve to feel safe in their homes and communities. 

This Government has been relentless in our focus on reducing crime and re-offending and ensuring victims are at the heart of our criminal justice system.

Overall crime in New Zealand is at a 30 year low.

We’ve put 600 extra police on the beat and equipped them with innovative, new tools and technology to fight crime in communities.

Our focus on youth has brought the youth crime down 38 per cent since 2011, which means less young people caught up in the criminal justice system.

We introduced the $50 Victims’ Offender Levy which has generated more than $16.6 million since its introduction and benefited more than 40,000 victims a year.

In the last seven years, we’ve passed 94 pieces of Justice legislation, including:

  • the Victims of Crime Reform Bill to improve the rights and services for all victims
  • And more recently the Harmful Digital Communications Bill to protect victims of cyber-bullying.

Stubbornly-high levels of family violence

However several challenges remain. 

Serious and sexual violence, while dropping, is still stubbornly slow to move, and the incidence and impact of crime is unevenly spread.

We know that in 2008 six per cent of adults experience 54 per cent of all crime. And Māori are over-represented in the criminal justice system, both as perpetrators and as victims.

Of course any violence is unacceptable. While it is impossible to know the exact numbers because of clear evidence of significant under reporting, on any set of measures New Zealand’s rate of family violence remains horrifically, and persistently, high.

We know around half of all violent offence charges in our courts relate to family violence and that in 86 per cent of violence against intimate partners the victims are women.  Furthermore, Māori women are twice as likely to experience family violence as Pākehā women and nearly three times as likely to be killed by their partner.

We know that half of all homicides in New Zealand are family violence-related. This means, on average, we lose 14 women, seven men, and eight children every year to family violence alone.

We know that 41 per cent of Police response time is spent dealing with family violence.

These issues are not solved simply or by any single change.

This Government is committed to better addressing the high rate of family violence. We want to ensure the home is a safe place for all women, children, and men and ensure that victims are not re-victimised.  Last year, around 100,000 family violence incidents were reported to Police.

That’s one every five minutes.

You may have noticed the counter next to me here and the ever increasing tally for today alone.

These are staggering and sobering statistics.

In the same time it takes to order a coffee, one traumatised victim somewhere in New Zealand is taking a courageous step and reporting to Police the abuse they’ve endured, often countless times before.

This counter shows the number of incidents reported in the year to date – nearly 58,000 already. It serves as a stark reminder to us that even as we sit here this morning, vulnerable New Zealanders are battling in dark and terrifying corners around the country, and confronting the scourge of violence in a very real and harrowing way.

And these are only the ones we know about. Evidence shows that it’s likely as much as 80 per cent of family violence cases go unreported to Police.

Relentless focus on family violence

We’re not talking about digits on a blank sheet or faceless statistical indicators. These are real New Zealanders who are struggling against the tides of violence behind closed doors.

When I was first appointed Minister of Justice, the first step I took was in making family violence my core priority.

In my view, family violence is one of the most insidious forms of social evil facing this country. And more must be done to address it.

It’s not an issue that’s unique to New Zealand but it’s a very real issue and one we can’t shy away from.

While the impact of violence in the family is clear to see, the issues around it are complex. Family violence affects families of all types, from all cultures, backgrounds and socio-economic groups. 

Contrary to typical stereotypes, family violence is not just a symptom of those who are economically less well off, in fact far from it.

Parts of New Zealand may think it doesn't affect them.

It affects everyone.

It can strike anywhere and can span generations.

It can happen in every city, every community and every neighbourhood.

As a nation we must do more to stop this terrifying cycle.

Without doubt the Government has a role to play but if anyone thinks this is someone else’s problem to fix they are wrong.

If we could legislate this problem away, I would pass that law tomorrow.

But there’s no silver bullet.

Real change will only take place when we work together and move towards a system where all agencies that play a role in addressing family and sexual violence operate as one co-ordinated system and where every one of us speaks out or offers a hand when we see the signs that things aren’t right.

Ministerial Group

While Government can’t solve the whole problem, we’ve got a lot to do to get our part of the picture right.

Shortly after being appointed Minister, I set up a cross-government Ministerial group focused on addressing family and sexual violence.

Co-chaired by my colleague Social Development Minister Anne Tolley, we’re absolutely focused on ensuring government is working together as part of a fully integrated system to prevent violence in our homes and responding better when it does occur.

Last week, Minister Tolley and I launched the first stage of a new work programme to better address family violence.

Part of this was the release of stocktake analysis we had commissioned to get a better picture of how much Government was spending and where, and whether it was effective or not.

That stocktake revealed some startling truths.

It highlighted that while good work is being done within agencies, there is clear room for improvement, with fragmentation and duplication of services among agencies.

It also showed we spend an estimated $1.4 billion a year addressing family and sexual violence.

The large bulk of this was spent on services delivered to address the immediate impact of a violence incident having occurred – such as prisons, hospitals and GP visits.

Only $42 million a year, or three per cent, was spent on prevention and screening. 

We want to see greater investment upfront to prevent family violence in the long-term.

We’ve tasked agencies to look at every part of the system to better understand what we are doing, where we are spending our money, what is effective and what the evidence tells us.

But it also reflects a rethink in the way we are engaging across government and working together to deal with the complex issues relating to family and sexual violence with the goal of becoming part of a fully-integrated system.

Other work underway

The work of the Ministerial Group builds on the practical package of initiatives Prime Minister John Key announced last year.

We have a suite of work underway and I want to briefly update you on some of that.

Appointing a Chief Victims Advisor

The first is the establishment an inaugural Chief Victims Advisor to the Government, which is an important step to ensuring victims are placed at the heart of decision-making.

A number of suitable applicants expressed interest in the role and I expect to make an announcement on who will be our first Chief Victims Advisor later in the year.

National Home Safety Service

We’ve also awarded the $3.6 million contract for the National Home Safety Service to the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges, and it’s being rolled out across New Zealand now.

This service will assist up to 1000 victims a year with beefed up security allowing them to remain in their homes with a lower risk of serious physical harm or violence. 

Judicial access to information

As part of our drive to ensure Judges have the best information to hand when they make decisions, we’re also putting together new regulations to give judges better access to more information about perpetrators’ family violence history. 

Speeding up court cases

In July this year, trials began in two pilot locations to test ways we can speed up family violence cases progressing through the courts – a time which can be traumatic for victims.

Intensive case management

I’ve also got my officials working with Police on intensive case management to improve the response to highest risk victims, and I’m expecting advice on progressing a test of intensive case management here in New Zealand.

Safety alarms for high risk

Another key initiative is the work of police who will shortly begin testing improved portable safety alarms and fixed alarms for high risk victims.

Information about a defendant’s health

I’m also looking into how to improve information that judges receive about a defendant’s health where it is relevant to bail and sentencing decisions – for example drug and alcohol dependency.

Criminal disclosure scheme

The Government has also been exploring the possibility of establishing a family violence criminal disclosure scheme of some kind here in New Zealand.

Family violence summary report

We’ll also soon begin trialling, in partnership with judiciary, a new report that gives judges making family violence bail decisions detail about the perpetrator’s family violence history.

Putting in place a Victims Code

We’ve just finished consulting on the new draft Victims Code, which will help ensure victims are better informed on their rights and how to navigate the justice system.

Launching the Family Violence Review

So, in short, we have a comprehensive package of initiatives and reforms that will make a real and lasting impact on reducing the number of family violence incidents in New Zealand.

A final and underpinning aspect is the legislative framework itself and ensuring it’s modern and fit for purpose.

Today, I’m launching a comprehensive review of family violence laws.

This review will spark debate and attract a wide range of views and I welcome that.

Its aim is to make sure the broad set of laws that apply to family violence are effective and work well together.

When the Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1995, it was world-leading.

For the first time, it set out a clear response to family violence and distinguished it from other forms of crimes. It was innovative and brave.

But that was twenty years ago now.

While successive Governments have modified parts of the law over the years, our understanding of family violence has evolved. The law and practice must also adapt.

It’s time for a comprehensive rethink to New Zealand’s family violence laws.

Ladies and Gentlemen, laws are not the whole picture.

We can’t legislate our way out of this.

But they are a cornerstone element in how we respond to family violence.

At the heart of this review is the safety of the most vulnerable adults and children who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing family violence.

This review won’t shy away from taking a hard look at our laws or raising some challenging questions.

The reality is if we want different outcomes we have to be prepared to do things differently.

And so I haven’t put out a worked up set of near final policy proposals but instead have included a range of innovative ideas that will stir debate and kick-start a national conversation around how we deal with this issue.

I want to make sure that the law effectively supports a co-ordinated system that keeps victims safe and holds perpetrators to account. 

In particular, I want to ensure the various pieces of family violence related legislation work well together.

For this reason I have decided that the review will not be limited to the Domestic Violence Act, but also explore how the Domestic Violence Act works with the criminal law and relevant sections in the Care of Children Act, the Bail and Sentencing Act and potentially other pieces of legislation.

The review will also look at the complexities of making decisions about care and contact arrangements to keep children and parents safe when family violence is occurring. 

Let me highlight some of the key ideas the discussion document raises.

It starts with a look at whether it’s time for the definition of ‘family violence’ to be updated to support our modern understanding of family violence and improve responses.

It also asks whether including guiding-principles in the Act could help ensure people better understand what family violence is and improves the way the legislation is implemented and decisions are made.

  1. Standalone family violence offences

Moving to the more specific suggestions, one idea is to establish a set of standalone family violence offences.

This would make the existence of a family relationship central to the offending and could help the Justice sector to build a broader picture of offending behaviour.

Family violence tends to be a pattern of abuse over a long period of time, and the criminal law doesn’t deal very well with looking at a pattern of behaviour and control.

As part of that, we’re also seeking feedback on the ideas of:

  • Creating a new class of offences of psychological violence, coercive control or repeat family violence offending
  • Making repeat and serious family violence offending an aggravating factor at sentencing

One idea is to more clearly reflect the concept of ‘coercive control’.

This could help ensure the response to family violence incidents takes into account the context of the violence, including the perpetrator’s patterns of behaviour and the effect the behaviours have on the victim over time.

  1. Additional pathway

A second major and innovative idea is creating an additional pathway for victims and perpetrators who seek help to stop violence escalating, without them having to go to court.

There is a body of anecdotal evidence of victims being reluctant to speak up because ‘they don’t want him locked up, they just want it to stop.’

The response to family violence should include an accessible and effective process for supporting families who seek help to address violence whether or not they are ready or willing to enter the criminal justice system.

Currently, in law, the main pathway for victims and perpetrators to access funded family violence services is through the prosecution and conviction pathway.

Families usually have to pay for self-referral to services.

In some cases we know victims, perpetrators and their whānau may wish to maintain their relationship while seeking help to stop the violence.

We’re seeking views on what this additional pathway might look like, and its appropriateness.

This is about helping those who want to break the cycle of violence whatever their head space.

  1. Protection orders

A third area for discussion is improving the accessibility and effectiveness of protection orders.

A protection order is a victim’s key legal tool to stop a perpetrator being violent.

Victims should face minimal barriers when applying for protection orders. They need enforcement of protection orders to be consistent and effective to stop perpetrators being violent.

So we’re seeking views on increasing access to funded legal advice for applications for protection orders and providing more opportunities for others to apply for protection orders on victims’ behalf.

We don’t want the cost of legal advice and representation to be a barrier to applying for a protection order.

We’re also suggesting requiring Police to arrest for all breaches of protection orders, where there is sufficient evidence and ensuring those matters are put before the courts.

Other ways of keeping victims safe that we are looking at include the operation and effectiveness of Police safety orders and property orders with a number of suggestions touching on those areas.

  1. Information sharing

It’s also clear that we need to do a better job of sharing information where family violence occurs.

This is true between Government agencies and between and within the courts.

International and local best practice showcase that in order to deliver better services, government and non‑government agencies need to be able to share information about their clients’ circumstances and needs.

So the discussion document floats the idea of creating a presumption of disclosing information where family violence concerns exist.

The view is that safety concerns should trump privacy concerns.

Whenever we talk about privacy, it’s bound to be contentious. While privacy is important, it mustn’t be used to hide violence, commit harm or prevent victims from getting help.

We’re also raising the ideas of sharing information:

  • To support judicial consideration of victim safety
  • about the history of Police involvement
  • about other court proceedings
  • from inter-agency family violence meetings.
  1. Compelling police action

The fifth major idea is about considering compelling police action in certain circumstances such as requiring mandatory arrest for all breaches of protection orders as previously mentioned.

To help encourage victims to report violence, it’s crucial that police are seen as always taking family violence seriously.

Victims need to be confident that police will respond effectively and consistently and enforce protection orders.

While police are already undertaking a major review of how they deal with family violence and should be commended for this, we are seeking views on how legislation could support a more effective police response.

For example, the discussion document proposes that the law could require police to take at least one of a number of specific options set out in law after issuing a police safety order to ensure no case slips off the radar.

Another idea we are raising is whether police should be able to apply for a protection order on behalf of a victim where that is warranted.

  1. Victim safety

Finally, we’re proposing giving more prominence to victim safety in related legislation like the Care of Children Act and bail and sentencing laws.

Parenting arrangements should acknowledge risk to adult victims of family violence, while ensuring the interests of the child are paramount.

So we’re looking at clarifying that a child’s safety from all forms of violence be given greater weight and be a primary consideration. This would also require parenting orders to be consistent with any existing protection order and give courts broader discretion to consider the risk to the safety of the child when deciding on parenting arrangements.

As part of this reform, we’re interested in what changes would ensure victim safety is considered in bail decisions and sentencing decisions.

This might include requiring judges to make victim safety the paramount consideration in bail decisions in all family violence offences or for specific charges.

Or better empowering judges to place additional conditions on people on bail or remanded in custody for any family violence offence.

Cross party support and input

The discussion document I’m launching raises more ideas than those I’ve just outlined and I’m hoping will generate many others.

I will look at any and all changes that will make a difference.

I want to hear from anybody who has got an idea as to how it can work.

We’ve put a whole lot of ideas for discussion in there, but I want to hear what you think will make a difference.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the input from all those who have had input into this review to this point. It’s a big piece of work and I want to thank all those involved for their contributions.

In particular, I want to note the bipartisanship showed on this issue to date.

I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. This issue transcends politics and I've invited ideas and support from across Parliament. I want to acknowledge MPs from across Parliament who worked constructively with me on this issue.

I’m proud of the way we’ve been able to put politics aside and come together constructively on such a critical issue.


Ladies and Gentlemen, the cycle of family violence needs to end.

Now that may be an ambitious goal but no level of family violence can be acceptable.

As a Government, we are committed to reducing family violence and we’re working hard to play our part in breaking the cycle of violence within families and across generations.

The home should be a safe place for all women, children, and men.

To do this we need world-leading, agile laws that work as part of an integrated approach across the Government and Non-Government sectors.

Thank you for taking the time to be part of the solution.

I encourage you all to engage with the review and put forward your ideas. Engagement from all walks of life is essential if we’re going to get our laws to the optimal level and start bucking the trend of family violence.

Thank you.