Address to Victim Support's National Conference
Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice
31 October 2003
Address to Victim Support's National Conference
Delivered at 11am
Millennium Hotel, Rotorua
Kia ora katoa.
It is my pleasure to open Victim Support's National Conference. I would like to welcome delegates and speakers. I know that some of you have travelled long distances to be here.
Dame Augusta Wallace, former patron of Victim Support, cannot be with us today. In her absence, however, I want to thank her for her unflagging efforts of behalf of victims over many years. She has been an inspiration to all of us.
I am delighted that Sir Howard Morrison has agreed to assume the role of patron. Sir Howard, like Dame Augusta, you will bring mana to this organisation.
I would also like to acknowledge the passing of Dame Ann Ballin, former Chairperson of the Victims' Task Force, who died on the 2nd of September this year. Dame Ann was a tireless campaigner for victims' rights in New Zealand, and was instrumental in the establishment of Victim Support as well as the promotion of the Victims of Offences Act 1987.
Until Dame Ann's involvement with the Victims Task Force, and the passage of the Victims of Offences Act 1987, victims of crime in this country had few rights and little access to general state-sponsored support services. She provided the impetus for much of what has been achieved in the last 15 years.
Today I would like to talk about the changes the government has made in the area of victims' rights and future directions for ongoing developments in this area.
First, however, I want to acknowledge and welcome the changes made by Victim Support itself, in particular the strategic review of Victim Support's operations and future direction, which commenced in 2001.
Your new strategy aims to provide a range of support services to victims, with 24-hour crisis support being just one service. The goal is to ensure that there is adequate support and care for victims to deal with the trauma of their victimisation.
That is a significant and worthwhile aim which I am confident can be achieved through the changes you have made.
The restructuring and the engagement of district managers should help improve the quality and consistency of victim support services by standardising training of workers and service delivery to victims across all districts.
The confederation structure on which Victim Support has been based until now has served its purpose well and has done much to generate recognition of and support for the rights and needs of victims at a local level. However, we have moved into a new era for victims in this country in recent years.
This has seen the passage of legislation to enhance victims' rights and to strengthen the services available to them and also a pattern of steadily increasing government funding. I believe that Victim Support is the NGO best placed to support the government during this new era, and that your ability to do so will be strengthened by a professional and nationally coordinated service.
I congratulate you on your vision and wish you all the best in achieving it. In particular, I welcome the new district managers to their positions, and here today. I am certain you will find Victim Support a challenging and interesting work place.
Victims will continue to depend on the assistance of the many Victim Support volunteers who deal with the hurt and trauma of crime on a daily basis. While structures are important, you are at the front line; it is your care, dedication and selflessness that matter most to a victim when they are in need. Thank you for the job you do.
Over the past several years much has been done to acknowledge the rights of victims and the community's need to support and protect people:
- we have substantially enhanced crime prevention efforts
- we have improved victims' services and legislated for additional and stronger victims' rights
- we have reformed the sentencing and parole systems
- we have introduced new law enforcement powers which will enable the more rapid detection and prosecution of professional and repeat criminals - for example, through the DNA and Counter Terrorism Bills which were each enacted just a week or so ago.
These are important steps forward, but preventing crime, and supporting its victims is a dynamic, not a static process. Further innovation will be needed to build on what we have achieved so far.
I would like to mention four particular issues which we need to continue to work on to ensure that victims' rights are upheld, and their needs are met into the future.
First, passing victims' rights into law is only of value if victims are aware of their rights, and are able to exercise them. The Victims' Rights Act that came into force in 2002, and the Parole Act that came into force on 1 July last year, greatly improve information for victims and their access to prosecution, sentencing and parole processes.
But government agencies and organisations such as Victim Support must build failsafe processes for dealing with victims to ensure that they are given the information they are entitled to, helped to access services they require, and supported through the aftermath of their victimisation.
There have been in some cases unacceptable failures in delivery of information and services to victims, at both government and non-government level. We need to minimise, and ideally eradicate, errors in service and information delivery. This is essential if we are to remain credible supporters of victims.
Following the problems experienced by the McCarten family in the Zhao case earlier this year, I and my colleague Rick Barker, Minister for Courts, asked agencies to examine their systems and procedures closely in order to ensure that as far as possible the sorts of problems evident in that case do not recur. Police and the Ministry of Justice have done that, and are in the process of effecting a number of changes as a result.
For example, procedures have been tightened to ensure that police pass on complete victim information to the courts. This will help to ensure that all relevant victims, especially in multiple victim situations, are contacted and receive assistance. Police performance on this aspect of their role in relation to victims will now be monitored and reported.
More training is being provided for Victim Court Advisers, and their role better defined. It is important to eliminate any confusion, held by any of the parties, about the bounds of their relationship to the victim and the formal prosecution process.
Specific changes are being made to put new, robust procedures around cases involving death to ensure that all relevant family members of the victim are identified and contacted. I am expecting a detailed report on these and a raft of other changes in the next few days.
Many problems associated with provision of support can be addressed by the implementation of professional and consistent training programmes. Operational agencies continue to improve staff training programmes, and I am confident that your re-structure will help to facilitate training and skill development for Victim Support workers. The combination of effort and the commitment to excellence in meeting victims' needs will help to iron out the problems that have occurred in the past.
The second issue I wish to touch on is reparation. Reparation is now available in a wider range of circumstances where a victim suffers harm, and the court is required to impose it unless there is good reason to the contrary. If not imposed, the court must state why not.
There are also provisions to ensure that the sentencing judge receives information about the offender's financial circumstances and his or her ability to pay reparation. These provisions in the Sentencing Act 2002 complement measures that have been taken progressively to improve the collection of reparation over recent years.
Legislative amendments have given the Department of Courts, now part of the Ministry of Justice, additional powers to share information with other agencies (such as IRD and the Work and Income Service), new enforcement powers, and power to make compulsory deductions from a wider range of income, including benefits.
These changes, along with expansion and improvement of the fines and reparations Collections operation, have resulted in a dramatic improvement in the amount of reparation collected. 80 percent of reparations are now either paid, or arrangements have been made to pay, within 6 months of their being imposed.
In the 2002-03 financial year a total of $12.3 million of reparations were collected, up 30 percent from previous year. This has helped to make inroads into the backlog of overdue reparations, which also dropped by nearly 30 percent to $20 million.
However, improvements to the collection and enforcement of reparation orders are still required. $20 million in overdue reparations is far too high. Despite changes over the last few years, I am not satisfied that we are doing all that we should to ensure that victims are properly compensated for their loss, damage or harm.
Further changes will be effected through the Courts and Criminal Matters Bill currently before the House. That bill, once law, will allow those with large amounts of unpaid fines and reparation to be intercepted at airports and prevented from leaving the country until they have paid them.
Both my colleague, Rick Barker, Minister for Courts, and I are also looking at other ways of enhancing the effectiveness of the collections system. For example, a law change to allow the immediate enforcement of lump-sum reparation orders will be introduced before the end of the year.
We are also looking at greater use of court walkers to encourage immediate compliance with reparation orders. I am confident that the work we are doing will further increase the proportion of reparation sentences collected by the courts.
The third area of work concerns restorative justice. I have asked the Ministry of Justice to develop a framework for the future development and funding of restorative justice schemes, which I believe in some circumstances have the potential to meet the needs of victims more effectively than the formal criminal justice system - though of course, the victim must always have the right to determine whether restorative justice is right for them.
The government has embarked on a programme of evaluation of existing restorative justice programmes, the results of which should be available next year. The information in the forthcoming evaluations will be used to review and possibly strengthen the best practice guidelines already published by the Ministry of Justice. They will also be used to determine the way in which we should further develop restorative justice as a response to offending in the future.
Finally, I am committed to the ongoing strengthening and improvement of Victim Support services. Substantial additional funding has already been provided since we became the government at the end of 1999; the government contribution to your organisation alone has increased by more than $1.25 million over the last three years. I am keen to continue to work with you, and other victim support organisations, to develop your services and to support requests for additional resources where these are clearly shown to be needed.
Over the next couple of days, you will be discussing these and other issues. Victim Support's conference provides an excellent opportunity for this and I look forward to receiving from Steve the outcome of those discussions.
I wish you well for an informative and successful conference, and once again, I thank all of you personally for the hard work and commitment you put in to improving the position of victims and helping to create a better society.
All Phil Goff's media releases and speeches are posted at www.beehive.govt.nz