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Letter from Elsewhere: Run, And Don’t Go Back

Letter from Elsewhere - By Anne Else

Run, And Don’t Go Back

It seems that constitutional convention depends on how judges feel on the day. On 28 June, the Sunday Star-Times reported that Family Violence Court Judge Phil Recordon and Chief Judge Russell Johnson both declined to discuss Recordon’s sentencing of Nai Yin Xue.

He had assaulted his child and his wife An An Liu, and threatened to kill her. Jdge Recordon sentenced him to – well, nothing at all, really. He had to come up for sentence if called upon within one year. Three months later he killed her.

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey, who heads a mayoral taskforce on family violence, had criticised the sentence, saying An An Liu might still be alive if Xue had been imprisoned the first time.

They wouldn’t comment because, they said, "constitutional convention requires that judges don't discuss specific cases in the media". But on 12 July, the Sunday Star-Times printed a lengthy letter from Chief Judge Johnson defending the sentence, and ran a related report.

"Prison is necessary for some family violence offending but not I suggest for the large number of New Zealand families coming to our attention," said the judge. "We have good reason to believe that an overuse of imprisonment will stop families seeking the help of the police and the authorities."

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"The family home has become the seeding ground for violence in our community…We know that 80 percent of the families whose members are arrested for family violence will unite again, and likely be violent again.”

"The international view is that courts should hold such offenders accountable, and sentence in ways that create the best chance for repair of that family unit in a union without violence. That is why courts are trying education.”

"That is what Judge Recordon was doing in the Xue case, given that Xue had no previous convictions. Often it works. Sometimes it does not. Regrettably that is the human condition."

Well, no, it didn’t work, did it.

The judge’s comments, and the assault non-sentence, show up some of the problems with current attempts to tackle domestic violence. Because this was the first time Xue had been charged, he was treated as a first-time offender.

But men almost never appear in court the first time they assault their partners. They appear in court only after a pattern of repeated assaults has driven the women to do something. An Australian survey showed that over a 12 month period, only 19% of women who were physically assaulted (and 15% of women who were sexually assaulted reported the incident to the police).

Judge Johnson seems to be saying that we know the people involved in these “violent families” (note how carefully he avoids mentioning the words “men”, “women”, or even “victims”) are likely to get back together again. So the courts are just going to go along with that and try to make sure they go on living together “without violence.”

But he’s already admitted that after they “unite again”, these families “will likely be violent again”. What I think he means by this vague phrase is that the man who comes to court for beating up his partner will probably do it again So how can he claim that education “often works”?

The way the judge writes about cases of “family violence” implies some kind of vague problem, instead of the perfectly clear pattern of men seriously assaulting their female partners or former partners – and all too often, killing them.

The Family Violence Clearing House has summed up the research. It dispels the current notion that women are just as violent to men as men are to women:
• Recent multi-country research carried out by the World Health Organization found that women internationally carried the burden of violence, suffering overwhelmingly more deaths, injuries and other negative health effects as a result of abuse by male partners.

• This evidence does not dispute the fact that some women are violent and some men are harmed by violence. Any gender symmetry in violence, however, is unlikely to take fear or control issues into account, and can be said to be mostly at the lower-end of the scale of physical violence.

• Research has repeatedly demonstrated that once attention to the issues of context, meaning, motivation, and consequences of violence are included, it becomes clear that there is not a gender symmetry in partner violence – it is men’s violence against women and children that is the most significant social problem. For instance:

- In 2005/6 NZ Police apprehended 25,356 male family violence offenders compared to 4,135 female offenders.
- In 2005 92% of those applying for Protection Orders were female.

• In one of the largest studies ever to compare women and men’s experience of partner violence, US researchers found that 25% of women and 8% of men reported rape or physical assault by a partner at least once in their lifetime. Violence by men was found to be the most common form – 93% of all kinds of violence experienced by adult women and 86% of all violence experienced by adult men was perpetrated by men. US research found that women were seven to ten times more likely to be seriously injured by partner violence than men.

Judge Johnson says, "We have good reason to believe that an overuse of imprisonment will stop families seeking the help of the police and the authorities."

But surely, seeing these kinds of comments and knowing what happens to all too many of the women – not “families” – who do seek help (and what doesn’t happen to the men) will be even more likely to stop other women asking for help. They will think, “What’s the point?”

And they’re probably right. The justice system seems patently unable to cope with these cases, because it fails to see men assaulting the women they live with, or used to live with, as the everyday terrorism that it is.

The focus is not on keeping the woman safe, but on “repair of the family unit”.

Here’s a new slogan that might work better:

The first time he hits you has to be the last time. Run, and don’t go back.


- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service. Anne blogs at

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