I want to give kudos to the Minister for Justice for getting the Law Commission to review options for how our justice system responds when victims of domestic violence kill their partners.
This is a relatively discrete piece of work that has the potential to correct a real injustice in our system. Victims who kill their abusers are treated harshly by our system. New Zealand is more likely to convict victims and incarcerate them than either Canada or Australia.
As the Minister noted in her media release: “Between 2009 and 2012, there were 126 family violence deaths and 10 were identified by the Family Violence Death Review Committee as involving a killing by a victim of family violence of their abusive partner. All defendants were women.”
Courts do not have currently clear direction or enough education to properly understand domestic violence and the cumulative effect of coercive control.
There is “no partial defence” in New Zealand law and self-defence, while a recognised defence, only applies when someone is in imminent danger. It can’t be used when someone has experienced years of horrific abuse and feels, and may well be, completely trapped so kills to prevent another beating or just to get free.
I’ve always likened this kind of violent relationship as being akin to a concentration camp, where you are at constant risk, isolated from other people, the threat of death is constantly in the background and often threatened, your life is not your own, and escaping is incredibly dangerous. Most women who are killed in New Zealand are killed six months after leaving their abuser.
We should be focussed on creating pathways to safety out of these relationships but we should also treat victims/survivors who have killed their abusers before they are killed themselves, with compassion.
Not to recognise the extent and pervasiveness of the violence in our law, and to treat these killings as effectively the same as any others, is just wrong.
The Law Commission recommends:
1. Continued education to support an improved understanding of family violence among judges, lawyers and police.
2. Reforms to the Crimes Act 1961 to clarify that self-defence may apply when a defendant is responding to family violence, even when the threat is not imminent.
3. Amendments to the Evidence Act 2006 to identify the kind of family violence evidence that may be relevant to claims of self-defence by victims of family violence.
4. Amendments to the Sentencing Act 2002 to ensure consistent consideration of a history of family violence as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
5. The Ministry of Justice consider the application of the three strikes legislation to victims of family violence who commit homicide.