Summary of Strangulation: The case for a new offence

15 March 2016

The Law Commission recently published a report on strangulation in family violence cases. The report is called Strangulation: The case for a new offence. It can be found on the Law Commission’s website www.lawcom.govt.nz. It recommends that the government enact a separate offence of strangulation to send a message about the seriousness of this type of offending and enable people who strangle to be held more responsible for their actions. 

The Law Commission spent nine months examining this subject. It consulted with a wide variety of experts in family violence, including the Police, judges, women’s refuges, academics, lawyers and doctors. It also studied academic writing on the subject and the strangulation laws that have been enacted in other countries.

The report includes a chapter describing strangulation—what it is and what the signs and symptoms are. It concludes that strangulation is a very common form of family violence and is an effective form of coercion and control. It also concludes that there is strong evidence that a victim of family violence who is strangled is at a higher risk of a future fatal attack than a victim who is not strangled.

After talking with stakeholders, the Commission concluded that the harm and risks of strangulation are often under-appreciated by Police, judges and other people who assist victims of family violence.

Another problem the report identified was that the perpetrators of strangulation are often charged with offences that carry low maximum penalties. This results in relatively low sentences being imposed on those people. The cause of this problem is that, in least half of all cases, strangulation does not result in obvious physical injuries. Victims will often suffer internal injuries or serious psychological effects that can only be identified by specialised medical assessment. Unfortunately, many victims of strangulation are not assessed by a doctor and so there is no evidence of an injury or wound, which is required to prove the more serious violence offences.

To address this problem, the Commission recommended that a new offence should be enacted. The new offence should not require proof of injury as it should be enough that the strangulation itself is proved. A conviction should result in a term of imprisonment that reflects the significant harm suffered by victims. The Commission suggested that a maximum term of seven years imprisonment would be appropriate.

The Commission also recommended that Police should specifically record whether or not family violence incidents they attend involve strangulation. This will enable Police to better determine how many incidents of strangulation are taking place. It will also enable Police to know whether allegations of strangulation were part of a defendant’s behavioural history, so that judges can be informed (if necessary).

The Commission also considers that Police and judges should receive education about the signs and future risks of strangulation. If they understand strangulation better, it is likely that they will pay more attention to obtaining evidence of strangulation, which will result in more appropriate prosecution of the perpetrators and decisions that are more likely to keep victims safe.

The Commission’s report was tabled in Parliament on 8 March 2016. Amy Adams, the Minister of Justice, has already expressed strong support for its recommendations. If the government accepts the Law Commission’s recommendations for a new offence, a Bill to amend the Crimes Act 1961 will be drafted, introduced to Parliament and referred to a Select Committee. At that point, members of the public will have an opportunity to express their views on it.