New Zealand Law Society - Family Violence

Family Violence

What is family violence?

Violence takes many forms. It is not okay whenever it happens. Family violence happens where the victim is abused (physically, sexually, or psychologically) by someone who is or has been in a family relationship with the victim.

The law recognises that family violence can take the form of a pattern of behaviour. Sometimes small things when taken together, cause you harm.  It could be about controlling you or pressuring you to do, or not do certain things (coercive control). It could be cutting you off from family or friends (social entrapment/isolation). On the other hand, just one incident may amount to family violence – for example a single physical or sexual assault.

Physical abuse includes slapping, shaking, punching, shoving, kicking, hitting, biting, using a weapon against or in any other way assaulting another person.

Sexual abuse is any form of unwanted sexual contact with another person or intentionally hurting someone without their consent during sex.

Psychological abuse includes intimidation, harassment, damage to property and pets, and threats of abuse. Threats could be made in phone calls, messages, or online posts, not just when you’re face-to-face. Psychological abuse also includes behaviour such as constantly humiliating someone (putting someone down), playing mind games, controlling their money, and isolating them from contact with their friends or family as a way of having power over them and making them scared. It is also psychological abuse to a child to allow a child to see or hear, family violence occurring in their family.

Financial or economic abuse includes denying or limiting access to financial resources or preventing or limiting someone’s employment opportunities or access to education.

You do not have to put up with any of these forms of violence. You have the right to live free of violence.

How does a protection order help?

All assaults and threats of violence are crimes. The police may charge offenders in the District Court.

Legal protection against family violence is also available under the Family Violence Act 2018. The Family Court can make protection orders against the violent person ("the respondent") and other people (associates) if the respondent is encouraging them to use violence against you. Other types of orders to help people in violent relationships are also available.

The police may also make a temporary order, called a Police Safety Order, in cases of emergency and at times when a lawyer may not be available. This is a temporary safeguard for up to 10 days. It lets a police officer remove the violent person from the household.

If a Police Safety Order is made, you should seek legal help as soon as possible so you can apply for a Protection Order from a court.

Who can apply for a protection order?

You can apply for protection (and other orders) under the Family Violence Act 2018 if you are in or have been in a family relationship with someone who has used violence against you, and you need protection.

This act covers a wide range of people in family relationships including:

  • heterosexual or same sex couples
  • members of the same family
  • whānau or family group (eg parents and children)
  • people in close personal relationships even if they are not living together, and
  • people who share accommodation, such as flatmates or boarders.

A child (a person who is under the age of 17 and not married) cannot make an application but must have a representative make an application on their behalf. Similarly, no application can be made against a child.

Other laws (such as the Harassment Act) cover non-family violence or abuse.

What is a protection order and how can it help?

A protection order is a legally enforceable court order which protects you (and your children) against violence or contact from someone in close relationship with you who is threatening or abusing you. Protection orders automatically cover children in the applicant’s family, who live with the applicant either on a day-to-day basis or from time to time. You can also ask for the order to cover other people (with their written consent) who are at risk of violence because of their relationship with you (such as a new partner).

Protection orders can apply whether the parties are living together or separately.

They contain conditions to stop violence and stop the respondent contacting you in any way.

Non-violence conditions apply whether the parties are living together or not. They say that the person who has used family violence (the “respondent”) must not physically or sexually abuse the protected person or threaten to do so, damage or threaten to damage their property, use psychological abuse against the protected person, or encourage others to do these things.

Non-contact conditions stop the respondent from making any contact with the protected person. The respondent cannot go onto the protected person's property; watch or loiter around someone’s home, workplace, school, church or other place they visit often; follow the person around or stop and accost them; or contact them in any other way. 

Contact between parents and protected children may be allowed in certain circumstances. If the protected person agrees to live with the respondent, the non-contact conditions of the order stop for the time they are living together. Once you stop living together again, the non-contact conditions come back into force.

Protected people who are considering living with the respondent should seek legal advice first about how any children can be safe from harm and what the law allows.

What else does a protection order do?

Temporary protection orders require the respondent to hand any firearms or weapons to the police within 24 hours and suspend any firearms licence. If a final protection order is made, the firearms licence will be revoked unless the court is satisfied that the protected person will be safe. This can be changed if the protected person agrees and the judge agrees.

The protection order can also include special conditions, for example, that the applicant has the use of the family car or home.

You can ask for your address and contact details to be kept confidential from the respondent.

The court must direct the respondent to attend a non-violence programme unless it considers there is good reason for the person not to attend. Once directed to attend a non-violence programme, it is a criminal offence if the respondent fails to attend – they may be fined up to $5,000 or sent to prison for up to six months.

The applicant and children covered by the protection order can also attend a safety programme if they want to. This programme is voluntary and free. For more information about programmes, contact the coordinator at your local Family Court, or your lawyer.

A judge will usually appoint a lawyer to represent the children affected by the court proceedings. 

What other orders are available?

Property orders are also available under the Family Violence Act 2018. These are:

  • An occupation order – gives the protected person the sole right to stay in the family home.
  • A tenancy order – gives the protected person the sole tenancy of a rented house or flat.
  • A furniture or ancillary furniture order – gives the protected person the right to take with them or keep in their possession certain furniture and household items. The police can be asked to help the protected person collect and remove furniture and household goods.

How do you get these orders?

A lawyer who specialises in family law is the best person to help you apply for a protection order, although you can apply to court without a lawyer.

You will have to fill out a form and write a sworn statement (affidavit) saying what happened and why you need a protection order. You then file these at the Family Court nearest to where you live. You can download the form, along with guidelines for completing it from the Ministry of Justice website.

It is very important to get legal advice if there are children or property issues involved. You may be entitled to legal aid to assist with your legal costs. Ask your lawyer about this. You can also get help to apply for a protection order from Women’s Refuge or Shine.

What happens if a protection order is made?

The police or a court bailiff will give the respondent a copy of the temporary order (or the on-notice application). If that person does not agree with the temporary order, they have three months to file a defence to it in court.

If no defence is filed, the temporary order automatically becomes final after three months. 

If the other party files a defence to a temporary protection order or to an on-notice application for a protection order, there will be a hearing in the Family Court about whether a final protection order should be made. Getting a protection order is not automatic and the legal test has to be met.

The judge will make a final protection order if they are satisfied that there has been family violence and that a protection order is necessary. The judge will hear both sides, then make a decision. Only a Family Court judge can make an order to end a final protection order.

You will get a copy of any temporary or final protection order from the Family Court or from your lawyer.

Remember to keep a copy of the order at home. And if children are covered by the protection order, give a copy to their school.

Children and family violence

The Family Violence Act is about stopping violence in families and about breaking cycles of violence between generations. The law recognises that even seeing or hearing family violence can be damaging to children. 

The Family Court will not allow a parent day-to-day care of or contact with a child unless the judge is satisfied that the child will be safe. If a parent has been violent this is likely to mean that contact will have to be supervised for a time. 

Supervised contact is contact in a safe situation with someone else there. Most places have supervised contact centres available. Your lawyer or the Family Court will have more information about supervised contact.

What if a protection order is breached?

If a respondent does not stick to the order, this is called a "breach". A breach of a protection order is a criminal offence. The police can arrest the respondent and hold them for 24 hours before releasing them on bail. If charged with a breach, the respondent will have to appear in the criminal court.

If convicted they will get a criminal record and may be sent to prison for up to three years.

Some examples of breaches are:

  • phoning, emailing, messaging or texting
  • coming around to the house
  • sending presents or flowers
  • physical violence
  • visiting the children at school
  • threats to you or to themselves
  • damage to property.

It is important to report all breaches to the police even if they seem minor. One incident on its own may not look serious, but a series of breaches can make the protected person feel threatened and unsafe. Also, minor breaches can turn into more serious breaches if the respondent is not warned to stop breaching the order.

How can you get help?

If you need help urgently, phone the police.

Otherwise, contact a lawyer, Women’s Refuge, Victim Support, Community Law Centre, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the Kaiāranga at the Family Court or the Family Court coordinator at your local Family Court who can advise you what to do.

There are also organisations that can help with:

  • personal counselling
  • advice about stopping violence courses
  • parenting help
  • advice about alcohol or drug abuse
  • help if you have been sexually abused.

The Ministry of Justice website has useful information about places that can help.

Do the right thing – see your lawyer first

Lawyers deal with many personal, family, business and property matters and transactions. No one else has the training and experience to advise you on matters relating to the law. If your lawyer can’t help you with a particular matter, he or she will refer you to another specialist.

Seeing a lawyer before a problem gets too big can save you anxiety and money. Lawyers must follow certain standards of professional behaviour as set out in the law.

When you get a lawyer to act for you, he or she must provide you with certain information, as outlined in our guide Seeing a lawyer – what can you expect?

This includes informing you up front about the basis on which fees will be charged, and how and when they are to be paid. The fee, which must be fair and reasonable, will take into account the time taken and the lawyer’s skill, specialised knowledge and experience. It may also depend on the importance, urgency and complexity of the matter.

There could also be other costs to pay, such as court fees. You should discuss with your lawyer how you will pay for the work and advice if you don’t want to spend more than a certain sum without the lawyer checking with you.

A lawyer is required to tell you if you might be entitled to legal aid. The guide 'Seeing a lawyer – what can you expect?' also outlines how you can help control your legal costs and get best value from your lawyer.

Choose your own lawyer for independent advice. You do not have to use the same lawyer as your partner or anyone else involved in the same legal matter. In fact, sometimes you must each get independent legal advice.

Lawyers must have a practising certificate issued by the New Zealand Law Society. You can call the Law Society on (04) 472 7837 (or at one of the offices listed below) or email to see if the person you plan to consult holds a current practising certificate. You can also check this on the register accessible through the website.

If you have a concern about a lawyer, you can talk to the Lawyers Complaints Service, phone 0800 261 801.

 If you don’t have a lawyer

  • ask friends or relatives to recommend one;
  • inquire at a Citizens Advice Bureau or Community Law Centre;