Catriona MacLennan: Disclosure law could save women's lives

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Gene Hepana was sentenced for the brutal murder of Jasmine Cooper. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Gene Hepana was sentenced for the brutal murder of Jasmine Cooper. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Lying behind New Zealand's tragic roll call of domestic violence is another sobering fact: many of the men who kill their partners have previous convictions for violence against women.

However, their victims are rarely aware of this history.

It is only once a woman has died and the trial of the perpetrator has concluded that it is revealed he has previously offended violently against women.

That was the case last week when Gene Hepana was sentenced for the brutal murder of Jasmine Cooper.

It was then disclosed that he had seven previous convictions for violence - five of them against women.

In Britain, the murder of Clare Wood by her former boyfriend in 2009 has led to the creation of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, known as "Clare's Law".

Ms Wood's former partner had a history of violence against women, including threats, harassment and the kidnapping of one of his former girlfriends at knifepoint.

However, Ms Wood was unaware of any of this and therefore lacked basic knowledge to protect herself.

Clare's Law comprises both a right to ask and a right to know.

The right to ask allows for information about a violent history to be disclosed following a request from a member of the public. The right to know involves police making a decision to disclose details when they receive information to suggest that a person could be at risk.

The scheme is being rolled out across England this month and requests for information have been made within days of its implementation in some places.

New Zealand should implement a similar scheme to protect women by equipping them with basic knowledge about their partners.

Justice Minister Judith Collins indicated this month that, although such a measure had not been discussed for New Zealand, she was interested in its impact in Britain and would consider looking at introducing it to this country in future.

The British scheme has already been trialled in four locations in England and there is no reason to wait to implement a similar measure in New Zealand.

Giving women access to information could save their lives.

It is appalling that the rights of violent men to privacy are considered more important in our law than the lives of women.

And introducing an information disclosure law is not all that needs to be done to lower our domestic violence toll.

Here are 10 other steps which need to be taken to reduce domestic violence, with the ultimate goal of eliminating it.

1. Write into the Domestic Violence Act 1995 a prohibition on discharges without conviction for breaches of protection orders and amend the Sentencing Act 2002 to provide that domestic violence is an aggravating factor. Require District Court judges sentencing repeat domestic violence offenders to stop treating it as a mitigating factor when the offending is against different women.

2. Introduce comprehensive programmes in schools to teach boys respect for women and girls, and to make boys value gender equality. Roll out programmes for girls to educate them about intimate partner violence and the warning signs of power and control by male partners.

3. Provide specific resources to the Ministry for Social Development to support women and children to escape permanently from violent relationships, rather than being forced to stay in - or return to - such situations because of financial constraints.

4. Implement the recommendations in the reports of the Family Violence Death Review Committee.

5. Roll out an integrated response to domestic violence modelled on that of the Victorian Government which makes a sustained effort to ensure that departments, agencies and service providers both within and outside government work together.

6. Extend the Safer Homes in New Zealand Everyday programme throughout Aotearoa so that domestic violence survivors and their children can remain in their homes.

7. Direct that Family Violence Courts are to cease applying a therapeutic approach and are instead to focus on the safety of women and children.

8. Reinstate recently repealed laws aimed at protecting children in families in which there is domestic violence.

9. Provide permanent, adequate funding for Women's Refuges.

10. Require the police to act on all complaints of protection order breaches and provide additional training to police and District Court judges about domestic violence.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and the presenter of Womenpower on Sky Channel 83.

- NZ Herald

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