Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Glenn report released: Shift burden of proof

Sir Owen Glenn's independent inquiry into family violence suggests shifting the burden of proof in "domestic" cases so that alleged perpetrators are considered guilty unless they can prove they are innocent.

The first report from the $2 million inquiry, issued today, has found "overwhelming agreement" among the 500 people who gave evidence that New Zealand's current court system is "dysfunctional and broken".

"The court system structure and processes, and the people working within it, revictimise and retraumatise victims," it says.

The first report, called "The People's Report", does not make specific recommendations, which are expected in a final report by the end of this year.

But it offers "ideas for change" from those who gave evidence, including "a major review of the court system". Ideas include:

• "Revisit the burden of proof so that it lies with perpetrators not victims."

• Review the adversarial system which "places an excessive burden of proof on victims", replacing it with "a more collaborative system where the burden of proof is on the perpetrator".

• End the court's "gender bias" which "fosters institutional abuse and revictimisation of victims, while perpetrators were often not held accountable for their behaviour".

• Provide advocates and non-means-tested legal aid to all victims of child abuse and domestic violence.

• Revise criteria for lawyers to act as lawyers for child because "most were incompetent and often acted in ways that were not in children's best interests".

• Educate lawyers, judges and court staff about domestic violence and child abuse, "particularly the psychological coercion and control used by perpetrators to manipulate people (including court staff) and proceedings".

"While the Glenn inquiry heard that some judges, lawyers and psychologists were exemplary, by far the majority were reported to be at times unprofessional and their actions or inactions contributing to unsafe or dangerous situations," the report says.

Elsewhere, it says: "An overwhelming number of people told how their domestic violence was treated as a 'game' by lawyers, who unnecessarily lengthened proceedings for what appeared to be their own benefit."

The inquiry, set up by Sir Owen two years ago in a package of philanthropic initiatives to tackle some of New Zealand's worst social problems, has been dogged by controversy. Inaugural director Ruth Herbert resigned last year over concerns that the inquiry was not being careful enough to protect people giving evidence.

Most of a 38-strong international think-tank that she had assembled also quit after reports that Sir Owen had pleaded "no contest" to a charge of assaulting a woman in Hawaii in 2002.

Sir Owen has also been in a court battle since 2012 with the US-based trustees of a trust he set up with the proceeds of the sale of his global logistics business, which has forced him to stop funding most of his other philanthropic projects in Otara.

However, new inquiry chief executive Kirsten Rei fended off resignation threats from its patron Dame Catherine Tizard, who spoke at the People's Report launch in Wellington today. Women's Refuge chief executive Heather Henare agreed to join the inquiry board, and respected Maori academics Dr Denise Wilson from AUT University and Dr Melinda Webber from Auckland University's Starpath project agreed to write the report.

Although there have been many other reports on family violence, the People's Report is unusual in bringing all aspects of the problem together into a single document written largely in the words of the 113 frontline workers and almost 400 survivors and perpetrators of abuse who gave evidence.

It acknowledges that many perpetrators are victims too: "While tane [men] may be perpetrators today, they have their own stories of being victims of child abuse, neglect and domestic violence."

"It is most often the trauma, not some medical condition or inherent fault with a particular person, that is the source of child abuse and domestic violence and any accompanying drug and alcohol problem," the report says.

"The response should not be about pathologising people, but rather addressing their trauma so that people are able to understand it, can develop new ways of functioning and coping with it, in order to heal."

It suggests intervening early and "holistically" in families affected by abuse, focusing on "the needs of the whole family and the ongoing needs of perpetrators, rather than individuals only".

"By helping young people find jobs and appropriate accommodation, by helping parents back into work, by establishing stable routines for children at school and by reducing the barriers to living in violence-free contexts, individuals and families can lead productive lives," it says.

It also suggests removing the current limits on free long-term counselling for both victims and perpetrators, and educating children, parents and the general public about respectful communication and caring relationships.

The report is online here.

- NZ Herald

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