Strangulation the edge of homicide
Anew law came into effect this week that carves out strangulation as a new criminal offence. It applies especially in cases of domestic violence, where strangulation has a notably baleful record. Research from the United States showed victims of strangulation are up to seven times more likely to be later murdered by their intimate partners compared with victims of other types of domestic violence. ‘‘Strangulation is, in fact, one of the best predictors for the subsequent homicide of victims of domestic violence,’’ found a report to the American Bar Association in 2011. ‘‘When a victim is strangled, she is at the edge of a homicide.’’
In 2014, the New Zealand Family Violence Death Review Committee found strangulation histories in 71 per cent of its cases, and 50 per cent of those cases involved multiple strangulations. The FVDRC concluded that strangulation was a modus operandi for some abusers.
Women’s Refuge told the New Zealand Law Commission the ‘‘vast majority’’ of victims it deals with have been strangled by their partners. The commission reported that ‘‘abusers do not strangle to kill, but to show that they can kill’’. But all too often they actually kill, whether by strangulation or some other brutality.
There is a great deal of evidence that strangling is a serious harm and this week’s law change is exactly the kind of evidence-based reform of criminal law this country needs. It contrasts starkly with the knee-jerk, populist changes we sometimes get.
Until this week, stranglers were typically charged with ‘‘assault with intent to injure’’, which carried a three-year maximum sentence, or ‘‘male assaults female’’, which carried a two-year maximum sentence, according to police.
Under our system, offenders rarely get the maximum sentence. By legislating a seven-year maximum for strangulation, Parliament has clearly told police, prosecutors and judges to clamp down on this appalling behaviour.
It’s been said that strangling is literally a way to silence women. This must stop.
Other measures against domestic violence have also passed. Coerced marriages (or civil unions) can be marred by violence, in part because there’s never any love in the relationship. There also may be issues around consent for sexual intimacy in these situations. The change means 16- and 17-yearolds must apply to the Family Court for approval to marry. Previously they needed only the consent of parents or guardians, who were often the very people creating the problem.
Youth marriage is not common in this country. In 2016, 30 boys and girls aged 16 and 17 were married. Some of these must have been legitimate expressions of love between two youthful but committed people. Those unions are still allowed, but now with the approval of a judge, a reasonable step in the effort to end forced marriage and to lower domestic violence.
Other measures toughen bail conditions, improve video evidence rules, advance the accessibility of protection orders and the like. All came after years of consultation and, if there’s any criticism to be made, it’s that change has been too slow. Coerced marriage came before Parliament in 2012. The Law Commission reported on strangulation in 2016. Women and children will have suffered and died in that time.