Putting victims and survivors at the centre of everything we do

I’m pleased to be here with you today because victims’ and survivors’ views and experiences need to be central to our systems and services. This is an opportunity to ensure that happens, and an opportunity to significantly improve our justice system, the wider family violence and sexual violence systems, and ultimately our society.

So I acknowledge you all as victims, survivors and as advocates. You all bring essential perspectives to the conversation about safe and effective justice.

As Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice for family and sexual violence, I am focused on ensuring victims/survivors can participate in sustained and meaningful ways to shape policy and improve systems.

Most victims of serious crime are victims of family and/or sexual violence. This is a significant proportion of the police and justice system’s work. We have shocking prevalence rates of family and sexual violence in this country – and we know there is still a massive gap between what’s happening in our communities and what’s reported to the justice system.

My speech today is less aspiration and more about sharing our thinking and direction with you so you can consider that and respond over the next few days.

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.

This is a priority for us. The Government has made this a priority: we’ve already passed two pieces of family violence legislation, finally reviewing and evaluating the Family Court, and increased funding to family violence services.

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 off Law Commission advice and important academic and policy work completed over the last decade. You’ve been telling us what we need to do for a long time, and we are not discarding those recommendations.

Another key contribution is work the Ministry of Justice undertook with victims of sexual violence to identify improvements that could be made to the justice system.

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 released late last year and co-designed with survivors and survivor advocates, to help victims understand the processes and roles in the justice system. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Other issues raised by victims of sexual violence include improvements to:

  • Long timeframes and delays in proceedings that cause distress for victims – and I’ve certainly heard that from family violence survivors and advocates as well.
  • The need to prepare for proceedings and having multiple opportunities to visit court to alleviate their anxiety.
  • Upholding victims’ rights, including having input to bail conditions.
  • The trauma of cross-examination by defence lawyers.
  • Greater access to information about what it means to be a complainant witness.

Thinking more broadly, I want to outline a couple of approaches I’ve seen internationally around how victims/survivors can contribute meaningfully to policy and practice.

In Victoria, Australia, the Victim Survivors Advisory Council has been involved in shaping the State’s family violence reform package and provides an ongoing voice in the design of services. It provides advice about how the reforms will impact on people who use services – this goes directly to Cabinet and the steering committee overseeing the work. It also ensures a diversity of views are brought to the work. It sits at a State level and has a wide mandate set by Government.

A second model is operating in Wales. There, SEEDS (Survivors Empowering and Educating Services) has been established by Welsh Women’s Aid. This operates as a survivor participation project where women who have lived through all forms of gender-based violence have the opportunity to share their experiences, receive training, support and resources that enable them to influence and inform planning, development and delivery of the response to violence against women.

So agencies in the public and private sector have drawn on SEEDS members to speak, participate in working groups, deliver training, advise on services and strategies, comment in the media and participate in a range of influencing and engagement activities, including deciding where funding goes. Government have supported this initiative through funding and promoting engagement with SEEDS across government.

Clearly there are advantages and disadvantages to different models so in outlining these two, which are perhaps at different ends of the spectrum, I welcome your thoughts today. I also know there are different indigenous examples and welcome your reflection on those.

Closer to home, I want to acknowledge some of the existing mechanisms we have, such as the work of the Chief Victims’ Advisor providing independent advice to the Minister and helping to identify ways to improve the system.

In the court system, we also have Court Victim Advisors and the Sexual Violence Victim Advisors who play an important role in supporting people on a day-to-day basis as their cases proceed through court. This is an important role, ensuring victims understand the process and have the information they need to make testifying in court possible.

Others, such as the Backbone Collective, SHINE, Refuge, Sexual Abuse Help, the Auckland Coalition for the Safety of Women and Children, the Law Commission and the Family Violence Death Review Committee are among many who collate and communicate the experiences of victims to highlight the changes needed in the way organisations, and government agencies in particular, practice and interact with victims across our systems. But we need to ensure those concerns are heard and systemically addressed.

Putting victims first means stopping the violence in the short-term, and preventing it from happening in the long-term. We need to hold these two objectives together, applying the wisdom and experience that comes from victims and advocates to improve our crisis response, at the same time as government increases our focus on prevention, which has historically received far too little attention.

We are starting to change the way the government responds to family and sexual violence. In September, we announced a Joint Venture of ten chief executives across government who are collectively now accountable for action to address these forms of violence.

The Joint Venture is all about 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, to ensure an effective, whole-of-government response to family violence and sexual violence. Integrated practice across government and in communities can prevent and reduce violence and we know government must do things differently to achieve this integration. The Joint Venture creates the leadership and accountability we need in that integrated system.

We have appointed an interim Crown/Māori partnership group – Te Rōpū – because we know that building genuine partnership with Māori into our model, and ensuring those affected by violence are integral to our work, will help drive significant improvements in the system, because we know the solutions held within te ao Māori have too often been blocked by our system. 

We will be appointing an external advisory group to support the government to work in partnership with the sector and to learn from the experience of victims, perpetrators, and children affected by violence.

This year we will deliver a national strategy and action plan to address and ultimately end family and sexual violence. The work we all do here over the next couple of days will feed into that strategy and plan.

I want this to galvanise our collective efforts – across government and in working with whānau and communities – to reduce family and sexual violence. This will set a clear direction, clarify the most critical strategic objectives and identify what has to happen across government and in our communities.

This is a real opportunity for all of us to ensure the national strategy and action plan reflects the needs of all communities and gives voice to those affected by violence.  I really look forward to working with all of you on this, and putting the needs and voices of victims and survivors at the centre of everything we do.

Kia ora koutou.