Protections against family violence: An overview
Types of behaviour that can be “family violence”
A change in language: From “domestic” to “family” violence
Since the new Family Violence Act came into force in 2019, the law in this area now talks about “family violence”, rather than the old term “domestic violence”.
This change emphasises the fact that violence can happen in a range of intimate and family settings, both inside and outside the home, and that this violence isn’t a private or “domestic” issue.
The family violence laws cover physical violence and abuse – such as punching, choking, kicking or throwing things
The family violence protections also cover sexual violence and abuse. This includes saying sexual things, forcing you to look at pornography, or any kind of unwanted sexual contact, even if at other times you agreed to sexual contact
You’re also protected against psychological (mental) violence and abuse – this includes:
- intimidating or harassing you – for example, watching or hanging around your home or workplace, or following you or coming up to you when you’re out with your friends or otherwise out in public
- threatening you – this includes not just when you’re face to face but also through things like text messages or online posts
- breaking or damaging things in your house or other things that belong to you or the family, like damaging your car
- hurting household pets
- financial or economic abuse (abuse that’s to do with money) – for example, stopping or limiting your access to your bank accounts or other financial resources, or stopping or limiting you from getting a job or getting further education or training
- stopping you from having access to things you need if you’re older or have an impairment or are ill – like medicines, or wheelchairs or hearing aids.
Family violence includes both single acts and patterns of ongoing behaviour
Just one incident can amount to family violence – for example, a single physical or sexual assault.
On the other hand, a number of smaller incidents, including some that may seem minor or trivial when looked at one by one, can also add up to family violence.
The family violence laws explicitly recognise that family violence can take the form of a pattern of behaviour, made up of a number of different acts of physical, sexual or psychological abuse – sometimes relatively small things. The laws protect against this behaviour when, taken together, it causes you harm (including psychological harm) or it’s all about controlling you or about forcing or pressuring you to do, or not do, certain things (“coercive” behaviour). This might be done to, for example, cut you off and isolate you from your family and friends.
Note: The kinds of violence and abuse described above amount to “family” violence only if they take place between people who are, or were, in a “family relationship”, as that term is defined in the Family Violence Act.
Family violence can include dowry-related violence. This means when the violent person is unhappy about how much money or other property or benefits have been given for a marriage or proposed marriage.
It is psychological (mental) abuse of children when family violence happens around them
If someone lets a child see or hear family violence, or puts a child at real risk of seeing or hearing the violence, that counts as ‘psychological abuse’ of that child, and so a judge can make a family violence protection order to protect the child.
Under the family violence laws, the adult who suffers the abuse isn’t held responsible for the child seeing or hearing the abuse. In other words, if your partner hits you or screams at you in front of the children, your partner is responsible for this psychological abuse of the children – obviously you are not responsible for it, because it’s outside your control.
However, under the Crimes Act, adults can be held criminally responsible if they fail to take reasonable steps to protect children in their home from serious abuse (see “Parents’ duty to report child abuse” below).
What about smacking children?
New Zealand law recognises that there are sometimes valid reasons for a parent to use force against a child, like if the child is in danger, and needs to be grabbed back to safety. But it’s not legal to use force to “correct” or discipline a child. So, smacking a child as punishment is not legal in New Zealand.
A parent (or someone in the place of a parent, but not a teacher) is justified in using force against a child, as long as the force used is reasonable in the particular situation, only for these reasons:
- to prevent or minimise harm to the child or another person (like if the child is about to touch a hot stove, or run onto a road), or
- to prevent or stop the child engaging in criminal conduct, or
- to prevent or stop the child engaging in offensive or disruptive behaviour (like carrying a child away from a situation they’re disrupting), or
- to perform the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting (like changing a nappy or giving a child medicine, even if they don’t want you to).
However, parents can’t use force “for the purpose of correction” – that is, to punish or discipline the child.
The police have the discretion to decide not to prosecute a parent for using force against a child if the offence is so inconsequential that it’s not in the public interest to bring charges.
Parents’ duty to report child abuse
Anyone who is over 18 and who is aware of child abuse occurring in their household must take reasonable steps to protect that child from death, serious harm or sexual assault. Parents and guardians also have a separate duty to protect children in their care from injury.
This means that adult victims of family violence, as well as people committing violence, are responsible for reporting child abuse, including the ‘psychological abuse’ of seeing or hearing family violence. (For more information see the chapter “Dealing with Oranga Tamariki / Ministry for Children”.)