Domestic Violence Act concerns

Neville Robertson.
Neville Robertson.
About 1% of protection order breaches resulted in the offender being discharged without conviction, but even that is too high, a senior academic says.

University of Waikato senior lecturer in community psychology Dr Neville Robertson said if police had ''gone to the trouble of prosecuting'' a Domestic Violence Act protection order breach, it suggested it was serious.

The issue of protection order breaches has come under the public spotlight following the murders of Bradley (9) and Ellen (6) Livingstone at the hands of their father, Edward Livingstone, last week.

The children's mother, and Livingstone's estranged wife, Katharine Webb, had a protection order against Livingstone following their separation last year.

Statistics from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearing House showed 4341 breaches of protection orders were prosecuted in New Zealand in 2011, which resulted in 3107 convictions. Of those breaches, only 38 resulted in offenders being discharged without conviction.

Dr Robertson, who was part of the team commissioned by the Ministry of Women's Affairs to review the Domestic Violence Act in 2007, said many of the concerns expressed by those involved in the family court process and who research the subject now ''sound very similar to the concerns we heard in 2007''.

He felt the courts still did not understand the psychology of domestic violence.

''We have seen some improvement, but it's still a problem when the defence lawyer and the prosecutor, the judge, the children's advocate ... don't understand the dynamics of domestic violence,'' Dr Robertson said.

Gestures which seemed benign to most people, such as leaving flowers on a victim's doorstep, were terrifying for victims, he said.

It was a way of sending the message ''I know where you live, I know I can get you any time I like'', he said.

Last year's reforms weakened the Act and it was ''concerning'', he said.

The resourcing of organisations such as Women's Refuge also needed to be increased, he said.

''These services need to be funded not just to provide their part of the response, but ... to provide monitoring of other services,'' he said.

He believed it was the best way to hold the system accountable to victims.

University of Otago dean of law Prof Mark Henaghan said the statistics were an indication judges were taking the issue seriously and most offenders were being convicted.

''That's not a massive number [about 1%], but for some people that will be too many and I understand that,'' he said.

''But that shows it is taken seriously by the system.''

He would be concerned if it was much higher, as offenders might think ''a couple of breaches doesn't matter''.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said since 2008 there had been ''significant law reform to improve the response of the criminal justice system to victims of family violence''.

More changes would come into effect early this year, including expanding the definition of psychological violence to include financial or economic abuse and encouraging protected people to attend programmes focused on enhancing their safety, she said.

timothy.brown@odt.co.nz

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