Judge calls for family violence charge

By Kate Shuttleworth

Minister of Justice Judith Collins said Judge Boshier's proposal would be considered. Photo / Supplied
Minister of Justice Judith Collins said Judge Boshier's proposal would be considered. Photo / Supplied

The Minister of Justice will consider making domestic violence a standalone criminal offence, but it appears any changes would not be likely to happen any time soon.

Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier believes such a change would provide a more accurate gauge of the nature and extent of domestic violence in New Zealand.

Minister of Justice Judith Collins said Judge Boshier's proposal would be considered, but that the justice work programme was already extensive.

"The immediate concern I would have would be in whether it would downgrade violence in a family to a lesser offence than the various charges relating to violence outside the home," she said.

New Zealand had come a long way since family violence was "glossed over as a matter for families", Ms Collins said.

Women's Refuge spokeswoman Kiri Hannifin said the level of domestic violence had been underestimated for too long, while Judge Boshier said it was "untenable" that such a charge did not already exist.

He said a law change could result in an increase in the significance of family violence.

"Take wounding with intent for an example; it carries a higher penalty than assault. It could be coupled with a section which describes it as family violence.

"Family violence has all sorts of risks that other forms of violence don't have. Nearly 50 per cent of homicides in this country have a genesis in family violence," said Judge Boshier.

"We all know that family violence is a huge problem, but we don't know just how much of a huge problem it is," he said.

"If someone is charged with drink-driving you know what they've done. If it's assault, how do you know what they've done and whether it's family violence?"

In his final speech before stepping down to begin a role with the Law Commission in December, Judge Boshier told the Women's Refuge conference in Blenheim last weekend that New Zealanders resorted to domestic violence too readily.

He said his proposal to create a standalone law for domestic violence was just a small part of fronting up to 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.

The National Council of Women president Barbara Arnold welcomed the proposal.

She had raised the issue of the lack of ability to accurately report violence at the United Nations' committee monitoring New Zealand's performance in relation to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in July this year.

A community group, the Ministry of Men's Affairs, was concerned over the proposal, saying Judge Boshier had sided with "feminist groups" during his tenure.

Spokesman for the group Kerry Bevin claimed Judge Boshier and the Family Court had taken a lead in favouring female litigants and prioritising women's concerns more than the issues affecting women and children.

The figures

*Last year, Women's Refuge provided 83,994 safe beds for women and children; an average of 230 women and children each night.

*Police estimate that only 18 per cent of domestic violence incidents are reported.

The proposal

Judge Boshier said a law change would not be difficult and could involve the Sentencing Act being amended, rather than a new law being drawn up.

All of the charges are checked in the Criminal Court, not the Family Court.

A judge would be able to see an assault charge alongside a new charge under a new section describing it as family violence.

"They would know instantly that there were all sort of things going on, that it wasn't just stranger violence," he said.

It would allow Family Court judges to see the nature of the criminal background of a person who appears in their court.

- APNZ

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