Strengthening the Criminal Justice System for Victims

Tēnā koutou rau rangatira mā | Greetings to this gathering of esteemed people

Tēnā koutou kui huihui mai nei | Greetings to you all who have gathered here

i runga i te kaupapa  o tēnei huihuinga | For this very important subject

Kei te mihi tēnei ki a koutou katoa | This is my acknowledgement to each and every one of you

No reira | And therefore

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa | I greet you, I acknowledge you, I acknowledge us all.

Please can I acknowledge:

  • Women’s Refuge
  • Māori Women’s Refuge
  • Te Uepū Hāpai I te Ora
  • Te Rōpū
  • Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust
  • Victim Support
  • Sensible Sentencing Trust
  • Shakti
  • The Advocates of victims
  • Members of the Judiciary
  • Under-Secretary Jan Logie
  • Dr Kim McGregor

Thank you for being part of this important workshop.

Victims of crime were represented at last year’s criminal justice summit, and made very powerful contributions.

Those speaking for victims at last year’s summit were strongly of the view that the debate we are now having as a country about the best way forward for our criminal justice system would be helped by a dedicated session on victims’ issues.  This is that session.

How our justice system treats victims of crime is a measure of its humanity, and is vital for public confidence.

I come at this question from a defining experience I had some years ago.  It was the early 1990’s; I had been a lawyer in practice for less than two years.  A very good friend of mine’s father was a victim of homicide.  He was Howard Teppett, a retired doctor in Foxton.

Two young men, apparently prospects for a local gang, had broken into Howard’s home early in the morning.  He and his elderly sister, Joy, who was staying with him were beaten and she was raped.  He died of his injuries from the attack.

I sat with the family through the trial of the two young men charged with murder (one of them had already pleaded guilty to the rape).

I saw for myself how alienating the whole process was for the family.

I was a young lawyer.  I was naturally sympathetic to the process – the arcane rules of evidence, the dispassionate conduct of the trial, the language and formality devoid of barely any humanity.

The family, however felt left out.  And they were left out.  I did what I could to explain what was happening.  But no one who was part of the system did.  With one exception – one of the defence counsel took some time to explain a couple of procedural matters.  It was a kindly gesture from a quarter the family wasn’t expecting kindness from.

Then that lawyer went on to cross-examine Joy, the only eye-witness to events.  It was a devastating cross-examination for Joy.  And now that defence counsel who had seemed so generous in spirit was as estranged from the family as just about everyone else in that courtroom.

For the record, the result of the case was that one of the defendants was acquitted and the other convicted of manslaughter.  The verdict was another shock to the family.

It was clear to me that the trauma of the loss of Howard in an act of violence was compounded by a system that was incapable of dealing with the family with empathy and sensitivity.

Since the late 1980’s there has been a growing voice for victims of crime and rightful demands for better support and a relevant voice during court processes.  It boils down to victims being afforded the basic dignity they should receive in a process that should be as much about doing justice for them as for offenders and the community at large.

I think we all understand the origins of our present criminal justice system:

  • That there are some behaviours that are so bad and contravene the basic trust and confidence we must have in each other for the benefit of an orderly society, that the State (or Crown) takes responsibility for responding to them;
  • We call these anti-social behaviours crimes, and the State through the police and crown agencies prosecutes them rather than victims having to;
  • Because it is the State and its agencies taking action, there are rules to prevent abuses of power and protect the innocent;
  • The system is geared towards proving the wrongdoing and then responding in a way that confirms society’s denunciation of the behaviour, provides a measure of punishment and hopefully does enough to prevent reoccurrence.

While we have been developing and refining this process over many, many decades and working out how to deal more effectively with offenders, we have overlooked the needs of victims.

It is time to do better for victims and survivors of crime.  It is time to accept that supporting victims of crime and making a place for victims and survivors of crime in our justice system does not have to come at the expense of the various rules and safeguards we have built up for offenders.

One thing that sets victims apart from every other participant in the criminal justice system is that they have not chosen to be there.  Nothing they have done has caused them to be part of the system.  So, rather than victims being incidental to the system, it’s time their place in it was clearly marked out.

Past and current legislation has sought to create place for victims.  With the Victims of Offence Act 1987, the Victims’ Rights Act 2002, the Victims’ Code in 2015 and the creation of the Chief Victims’ Advisor’s role in 2015, we have tried to provide better support for victims including the right to support at the time an offence is committed, the right to provide a victim’s impact statement at sentencing, and assistance with some costs associated with being in court.

Two recent events tell me this is not enough and we have a long way to go.  The first was at the beginning of last year.  I met with a woman whose nephew was the victim of a homicide.  A young woman is currently serving a prison sentence for manslaughter as a result.  The aunt wanted to speak to me because she thought it unlikely the young woman ultimately convicted could have been solely responsible for her nephew’s death (and having looked at the information I agree with her) but she couldn’t find anyone who would listen to her.  The aunt had a single visit from Victim Support, even though her nephew had lived with her for many years and she was the closest family member to him in New Zealand.  It was like the loss she had suffered and was mourning didn’t fit the usual pattern and so her feelings were minimised.

Her point was she could not get her voice heard.  She could not get the support she should have had.  Victim Support does great work every day, but it is true to say, it is not consistent across the country.

The second recent event that tells me we have more to do was last year’s report by Coroner Greig on the inquest into the tragic death of Christie Marceau.

It is clear that Christie was not only the victim of the heinous act of the young man who took her life, but of a system that failed to ensure the right information was available at the right time that might have meant she could have been kept safe.  Her voice should have been heard early in the decision-making about the man who attacked her.

I know we can do better.  I am committed to doing better for victims.

I will be back there this afternoon, and I look forward to hearing the proposals and recommendations that come out of this workshop.

As we seek to reform our criminal justice system – to make it more effective, to do better by reducing reoffending and therefore having fewer victims of crime – I am acutely aware that doing justice means doing justice for all, including for victims.