Family violence laws modernised

Practical changes to family violence laws, which come into effect this week, better recognise who is affected by family violence. Laura Walters looks at how these changes aim to prevent violence, while supporting both victims and perpetrators.

A million New Zealanders are directly impacted by family and sexual violence each year, including 300,000 children.

Police attend a family violence callout every 3.95 minutes, and that only accounts for what’s reported. On average, it takes 21 incidents before a person reports family violence. It’s estimated three-quarters of incidents go unreported.

On Monday, the second tranche of changes to family violence laws came into effect.

The new laws aim to modernise definitions and responses to family violence, in an effort to recognise the realities of psychological and physical abuse faced by a range of New Zealanders.

The new laws include updating the definition of family violence, creating key principles and a guide to decision-making when dealing with family violence, improving access to protection orders, property orders, and safety programmes, extending police safety orders, and increasing information sharing between agencies.

This follows last year’s changes, which added three new offences, including strangulation or suffocation, forced marriage or civil union, and assaulting a family member. The December 2018 changes also included a change to how bail decisions were made – with survivor safety the primary consideration – and they made it easier for survivors to give evidence through a video recording.

These changes to the justice and support systems come hot on the heels of the implementation of a new category of leave, which gives a survivor the ability to take up to 10 days off.

Research is currently being carried out on the uptake and impacts of the new leave category, but anecdotal evidence showed women were making use of the new paid leave.

“Ending family violence and sexual violence requires a whole-of-Government, and a whole-of-society, approach. This new law is a critical part of that approach."

Last month’s Budget also included a total package of $320 million towards breaking the cycle of family and sexual violence, and better supporting survivors.

When Justice Parliamentary Under-Secretary Jan Logie and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the funding in May, the pair stressed it was the biggest single investment ever made in this area.

New Zealand was ashamed of its family and sexual violence record, Ardern said.

“My goal has always been for New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child and that means supporting parents and communities to ensure children grow up in secure homes free from violence.”

Logie said the new laws were about ensuring everyone affected by family violence received the help and response they needed in a consistent, appropriate and timely way.

The legislation also directed police, the justice system, government departments and support organisations to intervene early to stop violence from re-occurring and recognise the long-term impact on children.

The new laws also put a specific emphasis on supporting those who used violence to acknowledge and change their behaviour through early intervention, support and education.

“Ending family violence and sexual violence requires a whole-of-government, and a whole-of-society, approach. This new law is a critical part of that approach," Logie said.

What is family violence?

One of the biggest changes is a modernisation of what constitutes family violence. The act defines it as physical, sexual or psychological.

The change of term from domestic violence to family violence is recognition of the impacts and effects on the whole family. Logie said it also acknowledged violence happened in a range of intimate and family relationships both inside and outside the home and that it was not a 'domestic' or private matter.

The definition was also expanded to include coercive or controlling behaviour.

The meaning of ‘family relationship’ had been expanded to clarify people in a care-carer relationship may be included, who were not necessarily relatives or family.

This reinforced the rights of people with disabilities and the elderly - two vulnerable and over-represented groups - to be protected from abuse.

In 2017, Age Concern received more than 2000 referrals relating to elder abuse or neglect. The Ministry of Social Development said one in 10 Kiwis would experience elder abuse, with the majority of cases going unreported.

And the NZ Family Violence Clearinghouse said disabled people were more likely to be abused both as children and adults than non-disabled people. A 2006 study on women with disabilities found they were about twice as likely to be victims of violence or abuse.

The new law included updated examples of family violence, including the withholding of care, aid, medicine or a device or support that affected the quality of life of a person. This recognised the abuse suffered by the elderly, sick or physically disabled.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Justice Jan Logie says the second tranche of family and sexual violence law changes better reflect the realities of family violence in New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Other examples included abusing pets or threatening to abuse pets or animals of importance to a person.

Logie said it was common for someone to stay in an abusive relationship due to concern about a pet’s safety, or their inability to find a new, pet-friendly home.

Earlier this year, KidsCan founder Julie Chapman began setting up the country’s first pet refuge, when she found out about this dynamic of family violence.

The other new example included in the act was dowry abuse, which Logie said gave visibility to the experience of some women from communities with a history of using dowry.

Shakti senior advisor and counsellor Shila Nair said dowry was a form of “culturally sanctioned abuse and violence perpetrated against women”.

The practice included the bride and her family providing dowry in the form of cash or assets, such as a house, vehicles and jewellery. It was often demanded before, during and after marriage.

If dowry was not provided, the victims were subjected to abuse including grievous bodily harm, threats of death, or the threat of having their visa sponsorship by their husbands withdrawn, Nair said.

“It provides a legal platform for understanding what is violence, so it means we’re coming a long way as a country.”

Often the bride’s family sold all their assets to provide dowry to their daughter’s groom in the hope their daughter would have a good life overseas.

However, the abuse often continued and many women - sometimes with children - ended up severely abused, their New Zealand visas withdrawn and abandoned.

While dowry was outlawed in India, it continued to be practised within the communities from the Indian sub-continent, in New Zealand.

Nair said Shakti was pleased to see dowry abuse included in the new laws, as it would serve as a warning.

But in order to make the law effective, widespread awareness needed to happen among those who managed the legal system, including the police, courts and judiciary.

Communities were aware dowry was unacceptable, however, they needed to be aware it was now an offence.

Other changes

The raft of other changes included improving and extending protection orders.

This included contact over internet or social media now counting as a breach of protection order, and prohibited behaviours that included loitering and stalking or other forms of psychological abuse and control. Further guidance would be given to judges on discharging protection orders.

Police now have the ability to arrest a perpetrator and issue a police safety order on the spot when called to a family violence incident. These orders could be extended up to 10 days, and police would be able to direct the aggressor to attend a risk and needs assessment.

Other changes included a set of 15 principles to be included in decision-making processes by police, the courts and family violence agencies. Meanwhile, 10 agencies had been named as part of a joint venture, and there were now fewer legal barriers to information-sharing between these agencies and government departments.

Acting superintendent Bronwyn Marshall, who leads the safer whānau transformation, said the changes brought into effect in December and this week would make a real, tangible difference.

Marshall, and others working in this space, said the changes were a long-overdue recognition of the patterns of abuse frontline staff saw and dealt with.

Practical steps, like having an app to fill out family violence reports on the scene, and taking a 10-15 minute testimony from a survivor at the time, made a huge difference, Marshall said.

From December, police were able to use short videos, taken at the scene on a phone, as primary evidence. When those videos were used as evidence, police were 77 times more likely to get a guilty plea.

Police attend a family violence incident every 3.95 minutes in New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Shine general manager Jane Drumm said the changes would make a huge difference.

“It provides a legal platform for understanding what is violence, so it means we’re coming a long way as a country.”

Drumm said the two tranches of family violence and sexual violence law reforms were like a large checklist of issues that needed to be addressed, and ticked them all off.

This meant there were many changes, but the cumulative difference would be huge and tangible.

It showed how New Zealand’s understanding of family violence was evolving, to recognise and understand the impact of coercive and abusive behavioural patterns and how that manifested – often over a long period of time.

The importance of recognising the harm done to children, and providing protection and support for young people was crucial, she said..

Enshrining these changes in law would raise awareness across the country, and give decision-makers the ability to act.

Last year, Parliament passed two new pieces of new legislation, which have led to the changes implemented this week: the Family Violence Act 2018 which repeals and replaces the Domestic Violence Act 1995 and the Family Violence (Amendments) Act 2018 which amends the Bail Act 2000, Crimes Act 1961, Sentencing Act 2002, Evidence Act 2006, Criminal Procedure Act 2011 and Care of Children Act 2004.

*Where to get help

Women's Refuge (For women and children) - 0800 733 843.

Shine (For men and women) - free call 0508-744-633 between 9am and 11pm.

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for mental health support from a trained counsellor

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz, or find online chat and other support options here.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

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