The deaths of Bradley and Ellen Livingstone at the hands of their father have focused attention on protection orders. Obvious questions about their effectiveness and enforcement are being asked in the wake of this dreadful event. At a first glance, it seems astounding that it was possible for Edward Livingstone to shoot his children before killing himself when he had been convicted twice for breaching a protection order taken out by his wife. Yet this is not a situation where blame can be easily apportioned or readymade solutions applied. Indeed, in the final analysis, only so much can be done to prevent a repetition of the Dunedin tragedy.
That is not to say, however, that nothing should be done. Quite rightly, most attention is being paid to a proposal for people who breach protection orders to be subject to global position system monitoring. This would prevent them approaching their victims. If an offender strayed into exclusion zones, an alarm would sound at the Corrections Department offices, and the police in the region would be called immediately to intervene. Such an initiative would mirror the use of GPS-equipped ankle bracelets when high-risk criminals are released into the community.
Monitoring in the case of protection orders would underline both their intent and that there would be consequences if there was any contact. The technology does have limitations, however. It indicates only the location of an offender. It does not tell if a crime is being committed. Effectively, it offers no greater degree of physical protection, especially given that the police's reaction is unlikely to be quick enough to stop someone intent on murder. For that reason, it is important also for the victim to be advised immediately if an exclusion zone is breached. That provides the best chance of avoiding harm.
The Livingstone case has also prompted calls for a review of the relevant legislation and tougher penalties for those who breach orders. Advocates of the latter point to the large number of transgressions each year. But many of these are minor. Livingstone, for example, was guilty of contacting his children's mother, not of violent behaviour. When the system was reviewed recently, with other aspects of the Family Court, the only substantial outcome was an increase in the penalty for breaching an order from two years' imprisonment to three. The decision not to opt for greater change is understandable. Protection orders, as operated in this and other countries, are generally regarded as a fairly effective means of reducing abuse and violence.
One standard condition of such orders is that any weapons must be surrendered to the police and firearms licences are forfeited. Yet Livingstone still managed to get a gun. That raises questions about New Zealand's firearms law, if someone proscribed from obtaining one can still access a weapon from associates or under false pretences. If all firearms, as well as owners, were registered, it may have been more difficult for Livingstone to shoot his children.
A register was recommended by Sir Thomas Thorp's 1997 review of firearms control. It is time this was acted upon. That and the use of GPS tracking should be the two most visible responses to the Dunedin tragedy. But neither will be foolproof and neither offers a long-term solution. Less high-profile but probably more important is an enhanced awareness on the part of those responsible for protection orders.
Several red flags were missed before Livingstone shot his children, not least the extent to which their mother felt terrified of him. In this case, the fear of someone who knew him better than anyone should have been accorded much more weight.