History of victims' rights in Aotearoa
Historically, a victim of crime could seek direct retribution from the offender for the harm they caused. The criminal justice system imported from England and implemented in Aotearoa New Zealand in the mid-1800s, however, was a system in which victims had effectively exchanged their right to seek direct retribution in return for the State accepting responsibility for the compensation, investigation, and prosecution of personal wrongdoing. The State’s obligations also extend to helping victims deal with the impact of the offending on them and to help them recover from the harm they have suffered.
While the State accepting responsibility for prosecuting wrongdoing has benefitted victims of crime by removing the victim’s burden and cost of investigating, and prosecuting wrongdoing, arguably, a negative consequence of this exchange is that in our adversarial system the victim is not a recognised party meaning that victims’ voices have essentially been left out of the system.
In response to the gap for victims’ voices and participation, there has been a victims’ movement in Aotearoa New Zealand spanning decades, working to increase the support given to victims of crime. Starting from the middle of last century, NGOs such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League, Women’s Refuge, Rape Crisis, Victim Support and individual victim advocates have consistently advocated for change, as well as providing services on a voluntary or partially funded basis.
Governments have responded slowly to calls for change from victims. Some of the first signs of change followed the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence in 1987. The Committee recommended Police training in victim support and better services for victims. It also supported the provisions of the first victim-focused legislation enacted in Aotearoa New Zealand: The Victims of Offences Act 1987.
The Victims of Offences Act 1987 stated that victims should be treated with courtesy and compassion by Police, judges, legal counsel and other officials. It also stated that victims should have access to welfare, medical and legal services, information, the right to make Victim Impact Statements, express their views about offenders being released on bail, and be notified when an offender escapes or is released from custody. However, these rights were not made obligatory.
This changed with the Victims’ Rights Act 2002. That Act placed an obligation on agencies to implement these rights. There is, however, a statutory bar preventing victims from claiming financial compensation for breaches of their rights.
In 2009, the Ministry of Justice carried out a review of victims’ rights. The review sought feedback on enhancing victims’ rights in the criminal justice process and access to support services. It found that victims of crime were generally unaware of their rights, were confused by criminal justice processes and had difficulty accessing information about it, including about what support services were available to them.
In response to this review, substantial amendments to the Victims’ Rights Act were made in 2014. The purpose of the amendments was to strengthen the existing legislation to widen the rights of victims of serious offences, provide more opportunities for victims to be involved in criminal justice processes and ensure victims were better informed of their rights.
This was followed by the publication of a Victims Code in 2015, which set out eight key principles for the treatment of victims and provided eleven specific rights for victims. While the eight principles apply to all victims, the rights only apply to victims who have reported a crime to Police or are before the courts, as they link to criminal processes focused on offenders (for example, bail, sentencing and parole).
The reforms also established the part-time role of Chief Victims Advisor to Government in November 2015. The purpose of the role is to give the Minister of Justice independent advice about how to improve the system for victims, and how to improve victims’ experiences in, and their engagement with, the criminal justice system.
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