Understanding family violence
Relationship types and gender
2.14Historically, consideration of family violence has focused on male aggression towards women and “battered woman syndrome” developed alongside the organised women’s movement. Most of the cases we are concerned with involve a heterosexual family context. In that context, violence is a gendered phenomenon. Perpetrators of violence are usually men, victims are usually women and children, and men and women kill for different reasons and in different ways.
2.15It should not, however, be lost sight of that the problems we consider arise – in all likelihood more frequently than the data suggests – in contexts that depart from this type, including non-heterosexual intimate relationships.
2.16Concepts and models that have traditionally been applied to women, in the context of intimate partner relationships, might be applied to other victims. Most obviously, “battered woman syndrome” has in some cases been reframed as “battered person syndrome” and/or applied to non-female victims. The nature and effects of family violence may perhaps more helpfully be conceptualised in terms of behaviours rather than participant characteristics.
2.17It does not seem to us to be problematic to extend our consideration to the positon of victims or aggressors who are not or are only minimally represented in the available data. We agree with the Victorian Law Reform Commission that the same legal issues arise for all victims of family violence who kill their abusers, of whatever gender, and whatever their relationship to the abuser.
2.18Although our terms of reference are confined to cases involving homicide, they are not confined to cases involving intimate partner violence (albeit IPV was the focus of the FVDRC recommendation that precipitated this project). We are required to consider the position of all victims of family violence who commit homicide.
2.19Intimate partner relationships are the most common context in which primary victims kill predominant aggressors, but victims of family violence kill abusers within other close interpersonal relationships, too. Of the 23 New Zealand cases we have reviewed in which primary victims killed abusers, two involved killings of male parents by male children.
2.20In the first, R v Erstich, the defendant had been subjected by his father to abuse that the Crown accepted amounted to “not much short of a reign of terror”. When he was 14 years old, after a decade of being subjected to physical and psychological abuse, and witnessing violence towards his mother and brothers, the defendant killed his father by shooting him at close range. The killing was premeditated, but although he was charged with murder, the defendant was convicted of manslaughter. At trial, he claimed the killing was provoked. He ultimately received a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
2.21In the second, R v Raivaru, the defendant was 15 years old when he stabbed his step-father to death with a carving knife in circumstances the sentencing judge considered amounted to “serious provocation”. Before the killing, the step-father had assaulted and verbally abused the defendant and his mother, and the judge accepted the homicide arose from the defendant’s desire to protect his mother, which “regrettably, resulted in disproportionate use of force with a weapon”. The defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
2.22Erstich and Raivaru are cases of homicide by children, not intimate partners, but both involved violence against other family members, including the defendants’ mothers. The FVDRC notes that IPV and child abuse and neglect (CAN) are “entangled” forms of abuse and that:
It is well known that exposure to IPV is a form of child abuse and that there is a high rate of co-occurrence between IPV and the physical abuse of children. Many children affected by family violence are living with what Edleson et al [footnote omitted] have described as the ‘double whammy’ – the co-occurrence of being exposed to family violence in relation to other family members and being a direct victim of child maltreatment. Children are also injured in the ‘crossfire’ of a violent assault or attack against the adult primary victim and can be used as ‘weapons’ by abusive (ex-) partners in the context of IPV.
2.23The FVDRC notes in addition that IPV and CAN are “not necessarily separate co-existing forms of violence” and that their co-occurrence may “only [make] sense if you understand family violence (IPV and CAN) as a pattern of coercive control and that actions directed at one individual are not necessarily designed to impact only on that individual”.
2.24Intrafamilial violence (IFV) – that is, family violence that is not IPV or CAN – is, similarly, often “entangled” with other forms, although that is not always the case.
2.25We discuss below the nature of coercive control, which is considered by many to be central to contemporary understandings of family violence and particularly intimate partner violence.
2.26Men are generally much more likely than women to commit and be victims of homicide, and they are most likely to kill strangers in “confrontational” circumstances.
2.27When they kill in the context of intimate relationships, men tend to do so out of jealously or a desire for control and to have histories of aggression. Of the 55 IPV deaths the FVDRC reviewed where information was available about the abuse history in the relationship, 41 involved a deceased female, and 40 of those involved a male predominant aggressor. Three further cases involved male offenders and male deceased, and the men who caused the death were in all cases current or former predominant aggressors.
2.28Women, by contrast, tend to kill intimate partners in response to long-term family violence, in non-confrontational circumstances and with a weapon rather than their bare hands. Among the FVDRC’s sample of 55 IPV deaths where information was available, females who killed were in the main primary victims (10 cases). Female predominant aggressors were responsible for the death of two primary victims (one female and one male).
2.29We discuss these differences in Chapter 5, where we identify problems with the current law and the operation of self-defence. For the purposes of this chapter, we simply observe that the circumstances in which women kill may also apply to others, such as children abused by parents or non-female primary victims. Women are, however, disproportionately represented among primary victims.
Non-heterosexual intimate partner relationships
2.30The FVDRC records that same-sex family violence deaths are likely to be undercounted. Even allowing for undercounting, among the 46 female IPV deaths the FVDRC reviewed for its most recent report, one occurred in a same-sex relationship.
2.31Most literature and data on primary victims of family violence who kill abusers concerns heterosexual relationships. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex IPV has received less attention, but there is some evidence it may be as prevalent as heterosexual violence. Some contend the dynamics of same-sex IPV are similar to those in heterosexual relationships, while others suggest they may be different in material ways. In any event, it is widely acknowledged further research is required.