Root causes of family violence under judicial spotlight

Judge Anna Skellern

Working in the District Court, there is no escaping the fact that New Zealand has unacceptably high family violence rates.

Image of Judge A Skellern.From 2009 to 2015, there were 194 deaths as a result of family violence. Of those, 92 were classified as intimate partner deaths, 56 child abuse and neglect deaths and 46 intra-familial deaths.[1]

High though those figures are, the number of incidents where victims are not killed, but suffer harm because of family violence, is far higher. For example, in 2016, there were 118,910 police investigations of family violence.[2]  Even more alarming is the estimate that 76% of family violence goes unreported.[3]

In recognition of the serious impact family violence has on families, the District Court has maintained an emphasis on education of judges and developed innovative ways to address the problems, within the confines of the current law.

The District Court deals with criminal charges resulting from family violence. Specialist Family Violence Courts have been established within the District Court, where the emphasis is on rehabilitation and prevention of further harm.

After guilty pleas are entered, consideration is given to the apparent root causes of the violence, such as alcohol and drug addiction. These often impact a person’s ability to manage relationship problems.

When the underlying causes are identified, referrals are made to appropriate agencies and the case is then monitored regularly to track progress. Only when programmes have been completed is the offender sentenced, taking into account measures the offender has taken to lessen the risk of further offending.

On the other hand, the Family Court[4] deals with the implementation of protective measures in Domestic Violence Act proceedings.[5]  These proceedings at any one time make up about 12% of the Family Court’s work.

The Act governs the making of protection and related orders such as Occupation and Tenancy Orders. The legislation provides the Family Court with tools to provide rehabilitative measures such as Stopping Violence programmes for perpetrators and, for victims, protected persons programmes.

Although domestic violence proceedings make up a relatively small proportion of the Family Court’s business, family violence pervades almost every area of the court’s work. The impact of violence on children is reflected in Care of Children Act 2004 proceedings which make up more than half of the applications filed in the Family Court.

In determining what promotes the welfare and best interests of the child, the first principle for the court to consider is that the child’s safety must be protected, particularly from all forms of violence.[6]  Violence also dominates care and protection proceedings under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 where the state is required to intervene in families unable to ensure their children’s safety and welfare.

Some people question why the courts do not do more to assist families in which violence features. However, courts are required to implement legislation as it stands.

In recognition of the damage family violence inflicts on families and the wider community, legislative change is on its way. The Family Violence Legislation Bill promises to simplify proceedings, clarify the principles which guide decisions and widen the scope of the law. Additional programmes to address rehabilitation will also be introduced.

When implemented, both the criminal and Family Court will be empowered to better respond to families who are affected by violence. Judges welcome the change.

"Although domestic violence proceedings make up a relatively small proportion of the Family Court’s business, family violence pervades almost every area of the court’s work"


[1] Family Violence Death Review Committee. 2017. Fifth Report Data: January 2009 to December 2015. Wellington: Family Violence Death Review Committee. Retrieved 10 May 2018.

[2] Data Scientist, National Performance & Insights Centre, New Zealand Police. (2017, May) [New Zealand Police Family Violence Investigation Data; Personal Communications.]

[3] New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey: 2014(2015)

[4] A specialist division of the District Court established to deal with a wide range of family relationships.

[5] Under the Domestic Violence Act 1995.

[6] Care of Children Act 2004, s 5(a).