A group of American human rights experts wants New Zealand to give free legal aid to all women seeking protection orders against violent men.

The group, from New York's Leitner Centre, also proposes mandatory domestic violence training for judges and lawyers and suggests a reference to the Treaty of Waitangi be included in the Domestic Violence Act.

Four Leitner academics and eight second-year law students, who visited New Zealand last year under a unique fieldwork-centred human rights programme, acknowledged that the country had made "deliberate efforts" to combat domestic violence.

"We maintain, however, that more can - and ought - to be done," they said.

Delegation leader Jorge Contesse met officials in Justice Minister Simon Power's office yesterday, but the minister refused to commit afterwards to either free legal aid or mandatory training. He said domestic violence would be considered in a broader review of legal aid announced this month.

On the Treaty he said: "The Treaty of Waitangi is not currently referenced in the Domestic Violence Act 1995 or in any other legislation of this nature."

The report found a consensus that New Zealand had "sound legislation" on domestic violence, but that the level of violence against women remained "surprisingly high". Surveys showed that one in three women had been subjected to physical or sexual violence from present or past partners.

It said many victims earned too much to qualify for legal aid, but could not afford to pay the typical costs of around $1000 for a lawyer to get a protection order against their partners.

Lawyers told the team that legal aid rates were also too low to attract senior lawyers.

The team recommended extending legal aid to all women seeking protection orders and giving incentives to attract senior lawyers to the work.

Mr Contesse was not aware yesterday of any other country that provided free legal aid for protection orders, but he said other countries did impose mandatory training for judges.

"We did meet with activists in the US who were shocked to learn that ... the Government did not have any plan for incentives for judges and lawyers to receive training," he said.

The report quoted Chief Family Court Judge Peter Boshier as agreeing, in an interview last May, that there was "not enough training for the police and court staff on family violence".

It said the Ministry of Justice also refused to require judges to undergo family violence training because it would undermine "judicial independence".

Mr Contesse, a Chilean who is writing a doctoral thesis at Yale University on the rights of Chilean indigenous people, led a focus on domestic violence in Maori communities. Maori women are three times as likely as non-Maori women to be assaulted or threatened by their partners.

www.roundtablevaw.org.nz/LatestNews.html
STRIKING BACK
* Domestic violence recommendations
* Free legal aid for all protection order applicants.
* Fund men who attend anti-violence programmes voluntarily, not just those on court orders.
* Mandatory domestic violence training for judges and lawyers.
* Include Treaty of Waitangi reference in Domestic Violence Act.
* Act on breaches of protection orders promptly and decisively.