A better understanding of family violence

14New Zealand has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world.5 Intimate partner homicides are all too common. Most of the time, they are committed in the context of an ongoing abusive relationship, by the person who, in the history of that relationship, has been the abuser (the “predominant aggressor”). However, in a small number of intimate partner homicides, it is the primary victim of the past abuse who kills the predominant aggressor.
15According to the FVDRC, cases where the primary victim kills their abuser account for 18 per cent of intimate partner homicides with a history of family violence,6 or less than five per cent of all homicides in New Zealand.7 These homicides are the focus of our Report.
16Gender is a significant risk factor for family violence victimisation and harm across all forms of family violence, and in intimate relationships women are more likely than men to experience severe physical and psychological harm.8 Three-quarters of all intimate partner homicides in New Zealand are committed by men, while three-quarters of the victims are women.9 However, where the homicide offender is the primary victim of family violence, they are overwhelmingly women.

17When a primary victim of family violence kills their abuser, their action is normally preceded by an extensive history of suffering trauma and abuse at the hands of their abuser as well as others. In the cases we reviewed for the purposes of this Report, we identified many examples of previous physical abuse, sexual assaults, and the use of controlling or intimidating tactics to undermine the autonomy of the victim and to make them fear for their safety or the safety of others.

18A meaningful analysis of cases in which a victim of family violence kills their abuser requires a proper understanding of the nature and dynamics of family violence. Otherwise it can be difficult for a person not experiencing family violence themselves to appreciate why victims, typically women, may be driven to the point of killing their abusers. Essential to contemporary understandings of the dynamics of family violence, and especially intimate partner violence, is an understanding of family violence as a pattern of ongoing harmful behaviour, with a cumulative and compounding effect on the victim. Viewed in isolation, incidents of family violence may appear “low-level”, however viewed as a part of a pattern of behaviour they may well identify an escalating spiral of violence, which can leave victims entrapped.10 It is often difficult for victims to seek help, as the use of coercive and controlling tactics by the abuser can leave them in social and financial isolation.
19How the criminal law, and those who operate within the criminal justice system, understand family violence and its ongoing effects is of great importance to ensuring victims of family violence who commit homicide are treated equitably before the law. It has been observed in Australia that if criminal law reform focused on family violence is not supported by efforts to improve understandings, then any legislative reform may have only symbolic effect and may not achieve changes in practice.11 In this context, without an accurate understanding of the social context of the homicide and the reality of the defendant’s situation, their actions cannot be accurately assessed. The pervasiveness and complexity of this kind of violence is not as well understood as it might be within the legal, judicial and wider community. The Commission therefore recommends (continued) education to improve understanding within the criminal justice system of the dynamics of family violence.


5Ministry of Justice Strengthening New Zealand’s legislative response to family violence: A public discussion document (Wellington, August 2015) at 4–5.
6The Family Violence Death Review Committee reported that between 2009 and 2014 there were 85 intimate partner homicides, 71 of which had a known abuse history. Of those 71 homicides, 13 (18 per cent) of offenders were primary/suspected primary victims, and 58 (82 per cent) were predominant/suspected predominant aggressors. Family Violence Death Review Committee submission at 9. All 13 primary/suspected primary victim homicide offenders were women.
7Or less than 10 per cent of all family violence homicides. This is based on the Family Violence Death Review Committee’s identification, in the period 2009–2012, of nine cases where a primary victim killed a predominant aggressor and one further suspected case, out of a total of 126 family violence homicides and 297 total homicides. Family Violence Death Review Committee Fourth Annual Report: January 2013 to December 2013 (Health Quality & Safety Commission, June 2014) at 34 and 75.
8Ministry of Justice, above n 5, at 13.
9Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 7, at 39.
10Family Violence Death Review Committee Fifth Report: January 2014 to December 2015 (Health Quality & Safety Commission, February 2016) at 36.
11State of Victoria Royal Commission into Family Violence: Summary and recommendations (Parl Paper No 132, March 2016) at 27.