New steps in improving our response to family violence

Speech to the Auckland Branch of the NZ Law Society, 25 March 2019

First of all I want to acknowledge the victims and survivors of the terrorist attack in Christchurch just ten days ago. As we are still processing what happened and considering how we are going to change and respond as a nation, it’s important to reflect on how we can all promote peace in our communities and ensure that everyone in them can live free of violence.

We have been swift to say that these kinds of acts of mass violence against religious or ethnic groups is not the Aotearoa New Zealand we stand for and love. But the sad reality is that a different – but not completely unconnected – kind of violence is all too common in our homes.

An estimated one million New Zealanders are affected by family violence and sexual violence every year. That includes the people who themselves use violence, and it’s important that we include them in our thinking. Even as we center victims and survivors in our discussion and decision-making, we must be able to hold those who use violence to account, to take responsibility and change their behaviour.

Our society is a violent one. But it doesn’t have to be.

Tonight I want to talk with you about the new Family Violence Acts and the wider work the government is doing to improve the responses to family violence and sexual violence.

These forms of violence undermine the physical and mental health, employment, housing, and education of families and whānau. They have an impact across generations. Ending this violence is one of our greatest opportunities to improve wellbeing, and for this reason, action on family violence and sexual violence is a priority for the government.

In 2016, the Family Violence Death Review Committee said New Zealand doesn’t have a family violence safety system. Instead, we have a ‘default system’ consisting of a fragmented range of processes and responses, with one-off interventions that don’t manage risks.

To achieve an effective, integrated system that changes social norms and delivers on prevention, early intervention, crisis response and long-term recovery, we need everyone – inside government and in communities - understanding their role and who are competent and resourced to take action.  We need a plan – a whole-of-government and whole-of-society plan.

So in September, we announced a Joint Venture of 10 chief executives across government who are now collectively accountable for action to address family violence and sexual violence.

This means government agencies working together in new ways to reduce family and sexual violence, to break down the silos in our responses.

Its role is to lead, integrate, and provide support for everyone involved – victims, survivors, people who use violence, and their communities; to ensure that effective, whole-of-government response we need. And to be publicly accountable for that response through reporting to Parliament.

The joint venture is working alongside an interim Māori/Crown partnership group – Te Rōpū – because we know that building genuine partnership with Māori into our model will drive significant improvements in the system. The interim group is preparing advice on what the enduring arrangements for this partnership should look like, and helping to develop a national strategy and action plan.

We all know that myths and misunderstandings about family violence and sexual violence abound. Many people don’t understand the dynamics and the drivers of the violence, how it can escalate, where it comes from, that it’s about control and unequal power. That sexual violence is most often committed by people the victim knows. That family violence can continue when someone is out of the home at work, and that the time when a victim leaves an abusive relationship is the most dangerous.

These myths and misunderstandings put lives at risk.

As lawyers, you are a critical part of the response to family violence and sexual violence. You play a crucial role in the process of achieving justice and resolution for victims and survivors, as well as ensuring the right to a fair trial and help to change for defendants. You can have a tremendous impact, not just in the technical aspects of your work – as we heard recently at the Victims’ Hui held in Wellington, for many people just the act of explaining how the court process works and what’s expected of them can be a huge deal in making the process easier.

So you need to know how to respond, identify risks, and act in ways that enable safety. You are part of the solution.

Our new family violence legislation should help.

The first phase of this legislation came into effect in December.

It introduced new provisions including new offences of strangulation or suffocation, coercion to marry, and assault on a person in a family relationship. These offences criminalise behaviours and practices that are known to be used by perpetrators of violence, but weren’t previously consistently responded to or given enough weight. Strangulation, for example, is a significant risk factor for future, escalating violence. It’s important we can see where and when that is happening.

Coercion to marry, I want to be clear, is not the same as arranged marriage. This arose from a lot of discussion with ethnic and migrant communities who need that distinction clearly spelled out in order to identify and respond to abusive situations.

And assault on a person in a family relationship will now sit alongside “male assaults female”, which will allow us to respond to violence in a range of adult relationships, including in-laws, parents, grandparents, siblings, and those in a close personal relationship such as carers – another important facet of family violence which was highlighted by the disabled community.

We are monitoring the legislation and its application to ensure we do not lose sight of the gendered nature of family violence, or inadvertently end up prosecuting victims’ acts of resistance and self defence. Pulling out forms of violence beyond intimate partner violence works within this framework.

The phase one changes also affected the Bail Act and Evidence Act, so the safety of victims of family violence offending, and their family, will be the primary consideration when deciding whether or not to grant bail, and on what conditions; and Police and courts will be empowered to impose any conditions they deem necessary for the protection of the victim and their family.

And it is now easier for Police to use video evidence on behalf of the victims. The pilot of this has already seen an increase in early guilty pleas.

Phase two of the legislation comes into effect on 1 July.

It updates the definition of family violence to more clearly recognise the controlling, coercive nature of it, and the cumulative harm it causes. It acknowledges the impact and flags raised by individual acts that may not seem significant in of themselves. Lawyers will importantly need to recognise this change and ensure clients get the protection they need.

There are also new principles to guide decision-making, including the need to consider the views of victims, that access to court should be speedy, perpetrators should have access to services to that help them stop and prevent family violence, and the need to recognise that children are particularly vulnerable to family violence, and family violence has a long term impact.

We know that if violence is occurring between a child’s parents, it can cause as much harm if not more than a direct assault against that child. We need to ensure we are protecting children in the context of intimate partner violence and helping to re-establish their relationship with their protective parent.

This is also being covered by our Family Court considerations.

The Act makes important changes to Protection Orders, Police Safety Orders and other mechanisms to improve safety.Image removed.

It lays the foundations for better family violence response Image by promoting consistent, collaborative responses to people experiencing family violence.

A range of agencies will now be defined in law as Family Violence Agencies with the expectation that they will collaborate to identify, stop, prevent, and otherwise respond to family violence. They must consider sharing information with other agencies where doing so would help keep people safe. This doesn’t include information held by lawyers, but it’s useful for you to know that new guidance and tools on how to share information safely will be available for agencies and practitioners.

The New Zealand Law Society recently hosted a webinar on the family violence legislation. This is available as part of Law Society Continuing Education. A second webinar will be available to support the 1 July changes, and I strongly encourage you all to take part.

The Ministry of Justice has been working with victims, survivors and people who use violence as well as advocates to support the implementation of the new legislation. This means redesigning protection order application forms and developing a risk and needs assessment and brief intervention service when a Police Safety Order is issued.

As I said, this is a priority for us. In addition to the legislation, Minister Little is leading the Family Court rewrite, and the report is due 1 May. We’ve also increased funding to frontline services and much more, including judicial education on family violence and sexual violence, bail information pilots, and ISR.

It’s important to me that we create a safe system, and that needs to include the courts.

I will, with the Minister of Justice’s support, be taking proposals to Cabinet this year to improve how the justice system responds to victims of sexual violence.

These proposals are built on Law Commission advice and important academic and policy work completed over the last decade.

In the meantime, the Ministry is implementing operational changes aimed at reducing trauma and revictimisation for sexual violence victims.

This includes improvements to our court buildings and an online guide to the justice system. This was co-designed with survivors and survivor advocates, to help victims understand the processes and roles in the justice system. We are also implementing psycho-social support from the point of disclosure, and I want to acknowledge the guidance and training for prosecutors issued by the Solicitor-General. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

You will all have views about the role of the justice system in our response to family violence and sexual violence; how evidence is gathered and presented in court, what support should be available to victims, their family and whānau, as their cases proceed; and how we should react to people who are alleged to have committed these crimes or are found guilty of doing so.

As we continue improving the system, I welcome your perspectives.

I am a strong believer in hearing from a broad range of voices, because it’s easy to get stuck in our own frames of reference, and the cultures of the organisations we operate in.

It’s critical to hear and include the perspectives of different ethnic groups, of diverse gender or sexual orientation, those living with disability, children and young people, and especially people who have direct experience of family violence and sexual violence.

We also need the expertise of those who advocate for and represent victims and survivors, and the professionals who see the trauma and know what is effective in holding perpetrators to account and changing their behaviour.

In the justice system, as a first principle, we need to approach family and sexual violence from a “do no more harm” approach. This means acknowledging the trauma that many people engaging in the justice system are already carrying and the need to create a system that is safe, effective and fair, and doesn’t cause further harm.

We have deep cultural and social norms to address and failing systems to mend. We need solutions that will endure: better enabling families and whānau to be strong; ensuring women and children are safe in their homes and communities; having men be confident in their masculinity and able to express their emotions without using violence; and that people of all genders are treated with respect.

We need all New Zealanders working together to address family violence and sexual violence. We need to think beyond the way things have always been done, see the future free of violence that we want to create, and identify how we are going to change the way we work to get there.

So I challenge you to examine the role of the legal profession in the response to family violence and sexual violence, to step up and join us to deliver a system that responds far better to the violence that is happening now, in order to stop it happening ever again.

Thank you.