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Q+A: Justice Minister Amy Adams on domestic violence law

Q+A: Justice Minister Amy Adams - new family violence offences and tougher penalties are likely after a review of our domestic violence laws.

Q + A

Episode 23


Interviewed by CORIN DANN

CORIN Good morning to you, Minister.

AMY Morning.

CORIN All right. A discussion document – what are we going to see here in terms of concrete changes to the laws that will actually make a difference?

AMY Well, we’ll put the document out on Wednesday, and the idea of that is to really start a pretty ground up discussion about what can we do better, because as you said in your intro, these figures are too high, and despite a number of initiatives over many years by a wide range of people, we’re not getting enough of a cut through, and I don’t think most New Zealanders want to live in a country where half of all our homicides are from people you love.

CORIN Right. So governments have been trying all sorts of things. What are you going to do that is different?

AMY Well, there’s a couple of things, and the first of those actually we announced last week, which is saying Government actually has to get its own house in order. For too long, we’ve been dealing with family violence victims along agency lines – so our agency looks at this part, and the next agency looks at this. The reality is these are families, and we have to get our own system in order and deliver a joined-up, all-of-government response. So that’s the first work programme we’re looking at. This piece that I’m announcing this week will be a look at exactly how the legal framework deals with family violence. So, to just give you one example, at the moment, when you’re convicted of a family violence offence, you’re actually just convicted of assault or homicide. There’s no particular class of family violence offence. So why does that matter? Well, it matters in a couple of ways. One, it makes it really hard to track where family violence is occurring, collect pictures of repeat victimisation and high-risk offenders. But secondly, it sends a different signal, I think, when you’re dealing with an offence that’s a complete abuse of trust.

CORIN So you would create an entirely new offence?

AMY I think that’s certainly some of what we need to look at. I think we need to look at how family violence differs from other sort of offending. You don’t have just a simple assault where you walk down the street and a fight starts, and it’s very much a one-off event. Family violence tends to be a whole pattern of abuse over a long period of time, and the law doesn’t deal very well with looking at a pattern of behaviour and control. So we have to think about how our law deals with that. We have to think about how it feeds into things like the Care of Children Act and the Bail Act and the Sentencing Act. So I think it’s time to look right across our system of laws and say, ‘How can the law support better practice, better outcomes, better safety for victims?’

CORIN If we have a new offence for domestic violence, would the penalties be greater than they would be for a similar offence under the old system?

AMY Well, that’s obviously exactly the sort of discussion we need to have. But in my view, family assaults and violence are of a greater level of seriousness, and the society would judge them more harshly. So I think there’s certainly a case to say there is a greater degree of culpability for violence against people who you’re in a trusted relationship with, particularly when we’re looking at children. You know, we have the fifth highest rate of child abuse and child death in the OECD. That’s not okay. And I think society would say it’s very very different when you commit an assault against someone who your job is to respect.

CORIN So tougher penalties and a new type of offence for domestic violence.

AMY Look, it’s going to go a lot further than that, Corin, but obviously we’ll put out on Wednesday what the whole suite of potential changes are. But really it’s about saying we need to look at this system from the ground up and say, ‘How can we do this better?’ We aren’t getting the cut through we need, and I want to see a significant difference.

CORIN One of the areas where you’re not getting the cut through is clearly around protection orders. Researching for this interview – a staggering number of breaches of people who have gone on to kill and do terrible things. They clearly aren’t working. Will you make it tougher to— easier to get protection orders and tougher if they are breached?

AMY Well, first of all, I wouldn’t say that they’re not working. I think they have a very valuable role in our system. But clearly if they’re being breached, serious consequences can flow. So absolutely we’ll be looking at protection orders, how they work, how you get them, what the consequences are of breach, who takes what action, who has to lead that, does it have to be victim-led, can the police act on their own initiative? So all of these things are being looked at. What we’re seeing is actually an increasing number of prosecutions for breaches of protection orders, which is a good thing, an increasing number of convictions every year for breaches, and we’ve already put the penalties up.

CORIN Do you need, though, to take more—? And this is one of the things that came through from the likes of Women’s Refuge when we talked to them. Do you need more of a zero-tolerance approach to protection orders? Because it seems as though, you know, a bit of a warning, first breach and nothing’s done. You know, and the police miss it or something. Does there a need to be a much tougher approach to the first breach of that order?

AMY I think we need to have very clear expectations that breaches of protection orders are taken extremely seriously. Now, the police do have to look at their arresting practices and how that works and getting it in front of the courts, and then the courts and the judges have to think about how they handle them. As I say, we’ve put that penalty up, so from the first breach, an offender can be liable to three years in prison, and I think that’s right. But I still think there are questions around how can they be more effective, how can we secure the victim’s protection under them more effectively, how can we make them easier to get, how can think about all of the myriad of things that flow from that, like where are the people going to live, how do we physically keep them safe? So there’s a lot of questions to ask, and as I said, the goal of this is to start that discussion, ‘How do we do this better?’

CORIN Yeah. In the Cabinet papers with your release of documents this week there was some talk about setting up a nationwide home safety service for victims who want to leave their homes but can’t. How is that different from Women’s Refuge? I mean, are you talking about something a bit more substantial?

AMY Absolutely. So, we’ve done that. We’ve rolled that out this year, and this is a programme that’s already been trialled, and I have to say the results from the trial were one of the most impressive set of trial results I’ve seen. This is about saying to women, actually, to leave a violent—Or men, but it’s generally women. To leave a violent relationship, it doesn’t mean you have to leave your home, your community, your kids’ schools, your networks. If you want to stay in your home, we can give you practical assistance, like locks on doors, locks on windows, security lights, alarm systems. And the women who have been, or the families who have been in this trial and have had this sort of assistance have found a staggering drop of repeat—

CORIN So you’ll roll this out across the country, will you?

AMY It’s rolled out now. We rolled it out from the 1st of July, and I’m expecting very good results from that.

CORIN Will you look at changes to the court system?

AMY It’s certainly part of what we’re going to consider. As I said, I’ve made it very clear I’m not taking anything off the table in what we should consider.

CORIN So is a domestic violence court one option that’s being looked at in the discussion document?

AMY It’s certainly an idea that comes up from time to time, and what I would absolutely acknowledge is that there has to be a lot better flow of information between our courts, between our family and criminal courts.

CORIN But is it on the table this time round?

AMY We will look at any and all changes which will make a difference. I’ve been very clear in this discussion document – which you’ll see on Wednesday when it comes out – I want to hear from anybody who had got an idea as to how it can work. We’ve put a whole lot of ideas for discussion in there, but I want to hear any idea that we think will make a significant difference.

CORIN The focus here is about victims, isn’t it, and helping them come forward or feeling as though they’ve got the confidence to speak up in a court. What about the inquisitorial system, whereby there is a judge effectively leading the investigation?

AMY Interestingly enough, just on the first point, the focus shouldn’t be entirely on victims having to stand up for their own safety. Somehow it’s about keeping the perpetrator held to account. And if you’re relying on a victim who’s in a very traumatised, weak position to lead that process, that can be a failing in itself. But your point about the inquisitorial system – you probably know I’ve got the Law Commission now doing a piece of work considering the way our trial processes deal with particularly sexual violence, but obviously that’s a component, often, of family cases. And I’ve asked them that very question: how can we think about how trials work to make sure we have a process that’s more supportive of victims and that’s more likely to lead to convictions where that’s appropriate, without going so far that we degrade the very high-quality justice system we have.

CORIN So you’ve extended that inquiry to cover domestic violence?

AMY The inquiry is looking at trial and pre-trial processes where you’re dealing with very vulnerable victims, particularly in sexual violence cases. But family violence very often involves sexual offending components. And what we see often is the same sorts of issues. So that will certainly help the family violence work.

CORIN Sure. This has been an issue that’s come and gone over the years with different justice ministers – inquisitorial approach. It would be a massive change for any court in New Zealand. Do you personally favour it?

AMY What I have said is what I don’t favour is changing the burden of proof. So if we were to switch to a system where the defendant had to prove their innocence, I think that goes too far. Now, an inquisitorial system versus an adversarial is not a binary decision, it’s a continuum. And I think there is a lot of movement along that line that should be properly considered. I’m going to wait for the Law Commission to come back to us. But I’m certainly open to a number of the changes that they proposed in their issues paper. I think they are worth looking at, as long as we don’t go so far that we put the burden of proof on the defendant. Innocent till proven guilty is the fundamental part of our system. I’m not proposing changing from that. Short of that, there’s still a lot we could do.

CORIN What about the police attitudes, culture in the police? Are you confident that there is enough effort gone in there to ensure that they are properly dealing with domestic violence?

AMY Yes, I’ve been very encouraged in recent months since I’ve been in the role at the emphasis the police are putting on this. And they are, right at the moment, having a completely fresh look at how they deal with family violence. Interestingly, 41% of all police response time is dealing with family violence. This is almost half their work programme. And they have a very very significant programme underway internally, looking at how they think about it, train, respond – overview. I think they’re doing a lot.

CORIN What about going even deeper than that? And this is one of the things that again came up again in researching this, was about societal attitudes and gender, between men and women, and the issue that this is predominantly— men are the perpetrators most of the time.

AMY 90% of the time, yes.

CORIN So whether there needs to be more education, more effort put into trying to address that?

AMY So when you look at that ministerial group that we set up to look at the system, the Ministry of Justice is not going to be the only agency involved. It starts right from education, as you said. Intergenerational issues, there are ethnic issues, there are disability issues, elder-abuse issues. And we’ve got a number of people thinking about how we do that. What I’m concerned about, from a government perspective, is at the moment you’ve got a number of agencies jumping in and out of bits of it without any cohesion. So we need to think about who’s going to be leading that work on gender education, making women and children more resilient, helping people to know when to step up and how to get help, right through to the incident response, the counselling, the holding the perpetrators to account. But we’ve got to stop looking at this through siloed agency lenses and start thinking about this as a family that have a number of issues that we need to get around and support. Government can’t be the whole of the problem, but we’ve got a lot to do to get our part of the picture right.

CORIN You are spending $1.4 billion at the moment. Will you spend more on dealing with this issue, which, as you say, is a massive problem?

AMY $1.4 billion a year is a huge investment. I think when we start digging into how effectively that’s being spent, we’re going to find a lot of areas for improvement. But it’s absolutely right that we should be asking the question for every single dollar of that, ‘Is it being spent well? Have we got the balance between prevention and response right?’ I don’t think we have at the moment. I do think there are duplications. I do think there are probably some low-value initiatives being funded. The question now is to go through that with a reasonably fine-tooth comb, find areas where we can spend the money better. But out of this review we might find all sorts of areas where we need to look hard at whether there is enough resource. That’s ahead of us. But if we don’t tackle this head-on and say ‘we need to do better’, those conversations are never going to happen, and they need to.


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