Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Family violence: Law changes broadly supported

One of the topics that received the most submissions was making protection orders easier to get, and more effective. Photo / iStock
One of the topics that received the most submissions was making protection orders easier to get, and more effective. Photo / iStock

Safety trumps privacy in cases where information sharing can help address family violence, and protection orders need to be easier to get - those are some of the messages given to the Government on proposed changes to family violence laws.

Nearly 500 detailed submissions from individuals and groups were received after the Government released a discussion document last August which floated potential changes.

Justice Minister Amy Adams has today released a summary of submissions, and said, overall, people were broadly supportive of the ideas for change.

"As an example, many of the submitters who commented on information sharing between agencies agreed that safety trumps privacy in cases of family violence.

People who had a say on protection orders and other legal tools thought they should be easier to get, and the consequences for breaching them should be swift and certain," Ms Adams said.

"While the legal framework is only one part of the family violence system, all of which is being reviewed as part of our all-of-government work programme, the laws that apply to family violence underpin how agencies, organisations and institutions respond to victims and perpetrators, so we need to make sure the laws are effective and work well together."

The topics that received the most submissions were:
• Updating the definition of domestic violence.
• Making protection orders easier to get, and more effective.
• Removing barriers to safety faced by specific population groups.
• Improving information sharing in family violence cases.
• Creating new options for victims, perpetrators and family who want to help stop violence, but don't want to go to court.

Amy Adams released a summary of submissions on proposed changes to family violence laws. Photo / Max Lemesh
Amy Adams released a summary of submissions on proposed changes to family violence laws. Photo / Max Lemesh

Ms Adams said decisions about specific proposals for law changes will be announced in upcoming months, with a view to introducing a bill later in the year.

When the discussion paper on Strengthening New Zealand's Legislative Response to Family Violence was released last year, Women's Refuge hailed the new proposals as potentially the most exciting action in 20 years to stem New Zealand's family violence problem.

New Zealand has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world, and ideas floated to address that are wide-ranging and, in many cases, radical.

One is to form an "additional pathway" for victims, perpetrators and family who want to help stop family violence, but do not want to go through the court system.

Many people do not report violence or seek a protection order until the situation has reached "crisis point", the discussion document notes, and others don't want the perpetrator to face criminal charges or be removed from the family.

Families in these situations may still benefit from services to help stop violence, such as giving the perpetrator access to non-violence programmes.

These services require payment if a court case is not happening.

An idea put forward in the document is for people to be able to refer themselves or others to services, rather than relying on the court process. Services could include restorative justice practices or mediation, "where safe and appropriate".

Options for police when responding to family violence incidents could also be set out in law. For example, in Victoria, Australia, police must choose whether to take criminal action, take civil action such as applying for a protection order, or make a referral to services.

The discussion paper also proposes "empowering police or an approved non-government organisation or iwi service provider to apply for a protection order on a victim's behalf" - for example when a victim is too scared of a perpetrator to apply for an order herself.

Police officers could already initiate a protection order, for example when a police safety order was breached. But the new proposal could enable women's refuges to initiate protection orders themselves.

The paper also suggests that when a protection order is breached police might be either required to arrest in all cases or required to take some action - either arrest, issuing a police safety order or referral to an agency such as an anti-violence course.

Other ideas contained in the discussion document include:
• Create stand-alone family violence offences. This could include an offence of psychological violence or an offence of repeat family violence offending.

Another idea is to allow a judge to take into account the seriousness of harm as part of a pattern of behaviour. In South Australia, for example, the court can consider if offending is part of "a series of criminal acts of the same or a similar character".

New Zealand judges take into account a person's previous convictions, but this is viewed as an aggravating factor and is not explicitly aimed at family violence.

• Update the legal definition of domestic violence, with one idea to more clearly explain the concept of "coercive control"- this would mean opportunities for authorities to intervene are less likely to be missed, because the significance of incidents are not underestimated.

• Give clearer direction to courts to consider the potential for parenting arrangements to expose a child or adult to further violence. The risk of violence is known to be elevated when a child is handed over to their other parent, for example.

• Make it easier for the sharing of information between the courts, police and the agencies and community organisations which deal with families. Currently, the Privacy Act can affect the ability to pick up on family violence.

- NZ Herald

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