New Zealand Law Society - Family violence a focus for District Court judges

Family violence a focus for District Court judges

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In 2014, Police investigated more than 100,000 incidents of family violence which included psychological, physical and sexual violence. This represents one incident every six minutes.

Family violence accounts for half of all violent offending in New Zealand so it is no surprise that it makes up a considerable percentage of the cases that come before judges in the District and Family Courts throughout New Zealand.

The complexity of family violence cases is also increasing. In the District Court, many trials involve child and other vulnerable witnesses, intimidated complainants, and high numbers of evidential challenges. In the Family Court, family violence is often intertwined in proceedings to determine suitable care arrangements for children post separation and child protection proceedings.

It is for these reasons that over 150 District Court judges, many of whom also hold family warrants and sit in the Family Court, received intensive professional development at a judicial conference on family violence in Wellington last month. Essential courts have continued to operate to hear urgent matters.

As Chief District Court Judge I believe it is essential that in order to best address family violence, judges must remain abreast of the latest developments not only in law but also in policy, psychology, academia, and in practice.

Expert speakers made presentations with the aim to both challenge our ideas as judges and increase our awareness of how to deal with victims and perpetrators of family violence. They have included clinical psychologists, counsellors, non-violence programme facilitators, Police, lawyers and academics.

As a result of the conference, judges have enhanced their knowledge of making risk assessments, dealing with vulnerable witnesses, addressing the needs of victims, the behavioural science of family violence, as well as developments in policy and the law.

Various challenges were discussed at the conference, for example judges having to make decisions based on limited information about the risk posed by the alleged perpetrator to their family. This occurs when making a range of decisions but particularly when making bail and sentencing decisions.

At the conference judges heard of case studies where there was important information held by prosecuting and other authorities but not made available to judges. The judges discussed working with the Ministry of Justice, Police and Corrections on ways to improve the provision of information and enable judges to make more informed risk assessments.

This conference is a major step forward towards ensuring judges are as up-to-date as we possibly can be.

Family violence will remain a focus for the judiciary and further family violence seminars and materials will be provided to judges in all courts in the coming years alongside the ongoing professional development they currently receive.

Judge Jan-Marie Doogue is the Chief District Court Judge.

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