Understanding family violence
2.1Family violence destroys lives and takes a significant toll on New Zealand society. Almost half of all homicides in New Zealand over the period 2009–2012 related to family violence. Disproportionately, family violence affects the lives of women. Whatever their gender or relationship to an aggressor, however, victims of family violence who kill their abusers have typically suffered years of physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse. The consequences of this abuse can be devastating both for the victims and their families. Discussing intimate partner violence, Jane Maslow Cohen writes:
Terrible and tragic things happen within the contexts of battering relationships, even beyond the violence and resultant injury itself. These tragedies include the death of the battered victim; the physical and psychological abuse of others, especially children, within the household; the destruction of employment situations and opportunities; the withering away of basic trust, particularly trust in intimacy; and, often, the waste of what might, and should, have been rewarding and productive lives.
2.2In this chapter, we consider the nature of family violence, the relationships in which it takes place and the circumstances in which victims of family violence commit homicide. Such cases represent a small subset of family violence related homicides in New Zealand. Of the 126 deaths the Family Violence Death Review Committee (FVDRC) reviewed for its Fourth Annual Report, only 10 involved killings by primary victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), while three involved killings by children who had been abused by fathers or step-fathers and witnessed their mothers being abused. All the IPV primary victims who committed homicide were women.
2.3Unsurprisingly, most IPV homicides are committed by those who have a history of aggression; most homicide offenders have been “predominant aggressors” in their relationships. The data on cases that involve killings of non-intimate family members, including children, is more complex, but it appears most offenders who commit violent killings of non-intimate family members have histories of abusing children or intimate partners. Mostly, predominant aggressors in both IPV and non-IPV cases are men.
2.4People who commit family violence homicides are, in short, normally otherwise violent and usually, albeit not always, male. Primary victims are much less likely to kill their abusers than to be killed, and when they do kill, it is usually after they have suffered very serious and long-term violence themselves.
2.5While our reference is concerned with family violence deaths, we note there can be a fine line between fatal and non-fatal violence. It has, for example, been consistently found that the “number one risk factor for intimate partner homicide is prior domestic violence, whether the victim is male or female”, but a “tiny proportion” of men who have been violent eventually commit homicide. Research from the United Kingdom and the United States has identified “clear empirical evidence to suggest that qualitatively men who kill their spouses do not differ greatly from those who use non-lethal violence“.
2.6It is apparent that neither family violence nor the responses of victims are amenable to simple analysis. Family violence is a feature of a range of interpersonal relationships, and forms and patterns of violence differ, as do victims’ experiences and responses. While this review is confined to cases in which victims of family violence kill, many more victims may commit acts of non-homicidal violence or react non-violently. Such cases are outside our terms of reference but, at least in connection with self-defence, will give rise to similar issues.
2.7We welcome all feedback on our discussion of family violence and the circumstances of primary victims who kill their abusers.
2.8We draw on the FVDRC’s Fourth Annual Report, judgments of New Zealand courts, local and overseas law reform work and academic writing to give an insight into the abuse and other circumstances that precede and surround such homicides. Our purpose is to provide context for our discussion of the problems in this area of the law and the options and challenges for reform.
2.9We understand the FVDRC is due shortly to release its Fifth Annual Report, which will include updated data on family violence deaths in New Zealand. It has not been possible for us to review that data in time for this Issues Paper. We will, however, do so for our Final Report.
2.10In reviewing particular cases in which victims of family violence have killed their abusers, we have relied primarily on sentencing, pre-trial and appeal decisions where they are available. We have also considered media reports, where available.