A call to make domestic violence a stand-alone criminal
offence provides a much-needed avenue for discussion about a
problem still sadly prevalent.
Departing Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier, who is
beginning a term with the Law Commission, believes a separate
charge of domestic violence would provide a more accurate
gauge of the extent of the problem in New Zealand and provide
a wider context for judges considering the criminal
backgrounds of people appearing in court.
"We all know that family violence is a huge problem, but we
don't know just how much of a huge problem it is," Judge
Boshier said in his final speech at the Women's Refuge
conference in Blenheim recently.
The call follows others made in March, during a trip to
Queenstown, including significant changes around protection
One of the difficulties calculating the extent of domestic
violence is police estimate only 18% of cases are reported.
Women's Refuge figures show almost 25,000 women and children
needed its help last year, and refuges provided safe beds to
an average of 230 women and children each night. The refuge
receives more than 60,000 calls to its Crisisline every year.
Judge Boshier said his proposal to create a stand-alone law
for domestic violence was just a small part of addressing the
problem, and New Zealanders needed to look at their "tacit
acceptance of family violence as less important than other
forms of violence" and their willingness to resort to
domestic violence so readily.
"Family violence has all sorts of risks that other forms of
violence don't have. Nearly 50% of homicides in this country
have a genesis in family violence."
Justice Minister Judith Collins said she would consider the
option, but her immediate concern was "whether it would
downgrade violence in a family to a lesser offence than the
various charges relating to violence outside the home".
A police report released in September challenges some of the
gender perceptions around family violence. The Family
Violence Death Review found mothers were responsible for 45%
of the child deaths subject to a family violence death review
from 2004 to 2011.
The report, which only involved deaths that were subject to a
family violence death review, found victims of family
violence were spread almost equally among men, women and
It also found 81% of female victims and 29% of male victims
were killed by a former or current spouse or partner, 64% of
all deaths were in families where police had prior
involvement, and in 55% of child deaths police had prior
involvement with the family. Most suspects or offenders were
in their 20s.
Family First national director Bob McCoskrie said the
statistics debunked the misleading popular perception "that
women and children need to be protected from men".
"If we're really serious about reducing family violence, we
need to talk about ... our violent culture and the role
alcohol and drugs play in fuelling this environment." Prof
David Fergusson, of the University of Otago, said the public
perception men were the perpetrators of most domestic
violence was the result of biased publicity.
"The proper message is that both gender groups have a
capacity for domestic violence - women probably perpetrate
more assaults on children then men do." Prof Fergusson said
the bottom line was "the importance of public policy being
based on evidence".
There should be no argument there, but it is debatable
whether such evidence - through more accurate statistics on
the problem - will actually help solve the problem,
particularly given the issue is complex, often involving
intergenerational, ingrained and learned behaviours and a
cocktail of social and environmental factors.
And, of course, statistics are only based on what incidents
are reported to police and other agencies; the size of the
iceberg beneath the surface can only be guessed at.
Judge Boshier is right when he says a separate charge for
domestic violence is only one piece in a bigger puzzle - and
Ms Collins is implementing several changes targeting that
puzzle. But if the judge's particular piece is a key towards
making progress on reducing the problem, it is to be hoped Ms
Collins pays more than lip service to its consideration.