Chapter 1

1.1For most of us, family provides the nurturing and security from which we draw strength and flourish. However, for far too many New Zealanders, it is not this. It is a place of violence, intimidation, coercion and control. Each year, the Police deal with over 100,000 incidents of family violence—one every five and a half minutes—and the number is growing.1 Yet, reported family violence is merely the “tip of the iceberg”. Much family violence goes unreported. Around half of all homicides are committed by a family member, three-quarters of those by men.

1.2In the past decade, there has been a rapid growth internationally in understanding the role played by strangulation in family violence. It is now known to be very common, particularly between intimate partners. The harm caused by strangulation ranges from struggling to breathe, to loss of consciousness, to death. The psychological impact on victims can be devastating. It is often said that, while the abuser may not be intending to kill, he is demonstrating that he can kill. It is unsurprising that strangulation is a uniquely effective form of intimidation, coercion and control.

1.3Two key factors distinguish strangulation from most other forms of family violence. First, it is an important risk factor for a future fatal attack by the perpetrator.2 Victims of family violence who have been strangled have seven times the risk of going on to be killed than those who have suffered other forms of violence but not strangulation. People who make decisions about the victim or the perpetrator (particularly judges) need to understand that risk so that they make decisions that will help to keep the victim safe. Second, it characteristically leaves few marks or signs, sometimes even when it has been life threatening. That presents unique challenges for prosecution and contributes to the dangerousness of strangulation being underestimated and the perpetrators not being held appropriately accountable.

1.4It is principally this second factor (combined with an increased understanding of the first) that has led many other jurisdictions to conclude that their criminal justice systems were failing adequately to prosecute and hold perpetrators accountable. Typically, strangulation was either not being prosecuted at all or it was being charged as a minor violent offence, as if equivalent to a push or shove. This prompted those jurisdictions, particularly in the United States and Australia, to enact specific offences with higher maximum penalties than the offences tended to be prosecuted as previously, and with elements of proof tailored to the harms and intentions characteristic of strangulation. In addition to better holding perpetrators accountable, these new offences are seen as a way to highlight the dangerousness of strangulation in family violence circumstances.

1“Statistics” It’s Not OK <>.
2Nancy Glass and others “Non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for homicide of women” (2008) 35 J Emerg Med 329.