NZ best place to raise kids? Not any more, says top judge

By Simon Collins

The country's top Family Court judge says New Zealand's high rate of domestic violence means we can no longer boast of being the best country in the world to bring up children.

Judge Peter Boshier told a hui in Auckland yesterday that six women were killed by their partners or former partners between November 20 and January 3. One child also died as a result of abuse.

One of the men committed suicide after he killed his wife. A new partner of one of the female victims was also killed.

There was nearly one incident of family violence every eight minutes during December and January. About 6000 children, more than half under 5, witnessed those incidents.

"I believe we are observing signs of a very serious breakdown in areas of our national social life," the judge said.

"We used to say of ourselves that New Zealand was the greatest country in the world to bring up children. If that was ever true, we cannot be so proud or complacent now.

"As judges, we see the damage daily. What is done to one is done to all. Domestic violence has become an issue for all New Zealanders."

His outspoken speech came as a ministerial team chaired by Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope is due to report on moves to strengthen enforcement of the 10-year-old Domestic Violence Act.

Labour MP Steve Chadwick, who is part of the team, said ministers were considering more Budget funding for women's refuges and for a public campaign, similar to the road safety campaign, to "get the community to respond and say, 'We've had enough of violence'."

Judge Boshier said the recent holiday period was not an anomaly.

"Over half of the murders in New Zealand are the result of domestic violence.

"Police statistics show a growing rate of call-outs to domestic disputes. The number in 2002-03 was 24,700. In 2004-05 it was 30,692."

He said three of the six women killed last Christmas had protection orders in force against their partners or former partners. One had had a temporary order granted just two days before she was killed.

"One woman had a final protection order but had applied for it to be discharged in the hope the child's father would be prepared to take a more active role in the child's life," he said.

One of the men involved, but none of the women, had attended a court-funded protection programme.

"As I reflected on the tragedies revealed by these reports, I asked myself what could we have done better to have provided protection for these victims," Judge Boshier said.

"I believe we could - and should - have done more. In the light of these tragedies, how can we expect the public to continue to have confidence that the law will protect them?"

A report by the women's refuge movement said 18 months ago that women were losing confidence in protection orders because judges were increasingly giving notice of them to alleged offenders, there were high costs and long delays, and police were failing to arrest offenders who breached orders.

Judge Boshier acknowledged that protection orders were reducing despite rising domestic violence.

But he said this was to be expected because protection orders, once completed, stayed in force forever unless discharged.

Judges had to balance the need for swift protection against the alleged offender's right to put his side of the story.

Women's Refuge chief executive Heather Henare said the Government should fund advocates from refuges or Victim Support to support women through the court process and ensure that offenders attended anti-violence programmes.

South Auckland lawyer Catriona MacLennan said she was delighted that Judge Boshier was speaking out on the issue, but disappointed that he had taken a "philosophical" approach of balancing protection against offenders' rights.

"A woman is killed every 12.5 days in New Zealand by her partner or former partner. That's not changing. So we have to get beyond it being a philosophical issue," she said.

"The courts are too reluctant to give protection orders without notice, and the legal aid income criteria are the same now as in 1969 - if your income is more than $19,060 you are too rich to get legal aid. So how can these women possibly pay lawyers to do this?"

Police Minister Annette King said domestic violence was a major problem and the only positive was that more people were reporting it.

Despite the statistics, she believed NZ was still the best place to raise children, but "we can do better".

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