Changes to domestic violence laws a step forward

Yesterday the Government announced changes to laws regarding domestic violence in New Zealand. The changes, which were announced by Minister of Justice Amy Adams include harder sentencing for non-fatal strangulation, coercion to marry and also committing violence against another family member. With 110,000 cases happening each year and international agencies such as the United Nations criticizing our abysmal record, there is little doubt that New Zealand has a major problem.

However long overdue these steps are, the increased focus on the victim – who should be at the centre of any protective measures – the increased funding and resourcing for police so they know how to deal appropriately with individual cases is totally welcome. Whether it is dealing with an abusive spouse, or protecting children from a violent family member, the ability of agencies such as Aviva family services and Rape Crisis to assist clients in a manner that keeps the suffering to a minimum and provides certainty is core to their mission.

There are however other measures that could still be taken, such as further training of police officers in terms of how they approach victims of domestic violence. An example of this is found in the case of Otago woman Sophie Elliott who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. Prior to her death there was at least one case where Ms Elliott had subjected to violence by Clayton Weatherston. However, she decided against pressing charges because aside from having no evidence she did not have confidence that the Police would deal with the case appropriately.

Another measure that should be implemented is a requirement for the caregivers of any child caught in domestic violence to tell the Police what they saw. This would mean that where a minor – incapable of telling Police themselves – is exposed to or is subjected to violence, the legal onus is on adults present to inform the Police.

Given the prevalence of both in our society today, one thing that I think would be useful is a preventative measure triggered by a person in question being under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. Given their ability to impair judgement, but also make a persons behaviour more erratic and potentially more violent, lowering the legal threshhold for taking preventative measures means that valuable time will not be lost in protecting people in obvious danger.

It will not happen in time to stop the United Nations giving New Zealand a deserved dressing down on the subject of domestic violence. These measures and their implementation will hopefully mean that next time a New Zealand Minister of the Crown is before a world body, they will be able to say “but we have made progress since then, and this is what we have done”.

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