Family violence homicide law change proposed

Family violence homicide law change proposed

Changes have been proposed to cases involving family violence victims who kill their abusers in self-defence.

The Law Commission has released a report that will be tabled in Parliament today.

New Zealand has the highest reported rate of family violence in the developed world, with half of all homicides happening within families.

Between 2009 and 2012, there were 126 family violence deaths, 10 of which involved a victim killing their abusive partner. All of those were women.

While the Law Commission says the numbers are small, most are women who have "endured years of trauma and abuse".

Last year, Ms Adams asked the Commission to review the law in relation to self-defence in family violence to see if it could be improved.

"It became clear in reviewing and reflecting on the abuse suffered by victims of family violence who kill their abusers that, in many cases, the final acts of homicide were acts of desperation," Commission president Sir Grant Hammond said.

There is currently no law specifically dealing with such cases.

The Commission says the use of self-defence requires an imminent attack, but for many victims there isn't one single incident, but rather a history of escalating abuse.

"The law needs to be changed to address this."

Lead commissioner Dr Wayne Mapp says there are several "deeply held" myths around family violence which need to be dispelled including that the violence on any one occasion is not life-threatening and questions about why women don't leave the relationship.

"The reality is family violence in many cases is part of an ongoing, sustained, vicious pattern of violence that entraps the person…the entrapment means she cannot leave and that then means she ultimately, for fear of her life or that of her children, sees no other way out other than to defend herself with lethal force.

"These myths have to be dealt with in our judicial system," Dr Mapp says.

The Commission has also recommended better education for judges, police, prosecutors and lawyers about family violence so they can better inform jurors in such cases about why someone might have committed the alleged offence.

"It is the juries who decide whether the person is guilty of murder, whether they're guilty of manslaughter or whether they should be acquitted."

He says there are some cases where people should have been acquitted or possibly found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. 

Ms Adams says the proposal is a "significant departure" from the current law so needs careful thought and consideration.

"We will carefully consider the Commission's recommendations as part of the significant work we are doing to address family violence," she says.

Green Party spokeswoman for women Jan Logie says the proposals are "really encouraging" and was long overdue for change. She congratulated Ms Adams for prioritising the work.

"The New Zealand conviction rate for women who kill their partner in the context of a violent relationship is much higher than in comparable countries like Canada and Australia.

"I think it is just patently unjust that women, who have been tortured for years whose only way out that they've been able to find is being killing their partner, is then treated so harshly in the courts."

Among the other proposed changes include: