In his Dialogue piece last week Professor Warren Brookbanks questioned whether a specific new offence relating to strangulation would deter domestic violence.

It is correct that simply enacting a new law will not stop male violence against intimate partners. Domestic violence by men against women occurs every day, in every country in the world. It transcends race, religion, class and economic divisions. It will not cease until men stop assaulting women and, as yet, no nation on the planet has worked out how to achieve that.

But that does not mean that creating a new crime of non-fatal strangulation would be a waste of time. Non-fatal strangulation is one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence and serves as a red flag for future serious abuse and possible death of the victim.

Its dangers were brought to public attention in New Zealand last month, with the release of the fourth annual report of the family violence death review committee.


That report recommended that New Zealand follow many American states in introducing a specific offence of non-fatal strangulation.

The reason for the proposal is that strangulation is a particularly dangerous form of violence because it is a type of asphyxiation. Manual strangulation, which is the most common kind used in domestic violence cases, may be done either with hands or with forearms.

It is only recently that it has been understood as one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence, as unconsciousness can occur within seconds and death within minutes.

Strangulation accounts for 10 per cent of violent deaths in the United States, with six female victims to every male victim.

The lifetime risk of intimate partner violence strangulation is 1 in 100 for American men and 1 in 10 for women. Similarly, the family violence committee report found that, in New Zealand, 71 per cent of the regional reviews it conducted had strangulation histories.

A 266-page American report published last year describes strangulation cases as "the edge of a homicide".

However, such assaults may leave few physical symptoms and are often downplayed by victims, police and courts.

New Zealand should adopt the committee recommendation and follow the example of American states by enacting its own offence of non-fatal strangulation to ensure that assaults are treated with the seriousness they deserve.


The offence would not be "attempted strangulation" but rather "non-fatal strangulation". This is because the assault is not an attempt: it is a complete offence. The perpetrator is demonstrating to the victim that he can easily kill her at any time, even if he does not choose to do so on a particular day.

The three main lessons to be learned from recent American experience of non-fatal strangulation laws are:

Wording is very important; the Texas and Idaho statutes are regarded as among the best.

Implementation plans and training are necessary for those involved in investigating and prosecuting the new offence.

The offence should be prosecuted as a serious, indictable crime rather than a summary offence.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister.