The reason New Zealand First pulled handbrake on sexual violence legislation

New Zealand First MPs say they are not stopping the sexual violence legislation.
New Zealand First MPs say they are not stopping the sexual violence legislation. Photo credit: File

New Zealand First agrees that victims need to be supported but also believes in the rights of defendants to a fair trial, which is why it wants more time to consider proposed sexual violence legislation. 

New Zealand First MPs Tracey Martin and Darroch Ball said in a joint statement on Tuesday that more work is needed to ensure victims of sexual violence, "who are overwhelmingly women", receive support from the justice system. 

"We do not want the victims of sexual violence to suffer further through the court process."

The Sexual Violence Legislation Bill was supported by all political parties at the first reading in November 2019 and Justice Minister Andrew Little hoped it would pass before the election this year. 

But Little confirmed last month that progress had stalled until issues raised by New Zealand First could be resolved - issues stemming from concerns that the legislation might compromise a defendant's right to a fair trial. 

The Sexual Violence Legislation Bill aims to make the court process less traumatic for complainants by introducing a higher threshold before evidence can be used about a complainant's sexual history. 

But defence lawyers submitting on the legislation raised concerns about the legislation potentially breaching the Bill of Rights Act which protects a defendant's right to a fair trial. 

They said sexual history is often central to a defendant's case. 

Little has argued that complainants sometimes don't want to come forward because they don't want to have to go through the process of having their sexual history read out in court. 

It was one of the recommendations the Government accepted in response to the independent Law Commission's March 2019 report on its review of the Evidence Act 2006. 

Sexual violence victims would also be given the right to choose how they give evidence, with the option of audiovisual link or pre-recorded video, to avoid seeing their attacker.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice Jan Logie said in November the changes would help to lessen the "unacceptable secondary harm" that victims and survivors of sexual violence may experience in court. 

"These changes are critical to reducing the trauma that contributes to our low prosecution and conviction rates for sexual violence."

But New Zealand First wants the legislation looked at more closely. 

"Victims have to be supported. At the same time our justice system is based on the notion of presuming innocence and the rights of defendants to a fair trial," said law and order spokesperson Darroch Ball. 

"It is of fundamental importance to ensure we get this law right."

Tracey Martin, New Zealand First's spokesperson for women, said one of New Zealand's "great shames" is the levels of family violence and sexual violence in communities.

"That is why NZ First has always argued for greater attention to prevention and early intervention for both victims and perpetrators," she said. "We will continue to push for that fundamental shift in our society.

"That is why we need more time to ensure the changes will work practically and not have adverse impacts."

New Zealand First has prevented some big proposed projects from going ahead, such as light rail. But the New Zealand First MPs insisted they are not stopping the sexual violence legislation. 

"We are not stopping the progress of this legislation - we are actively encouraging its continued development."