Police too strict on domestics

SALLY KIDSON
Last updated 14:33 13/04/2013

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Too many minor domestic assaults are ending up in court, clogging the system and stretching resources, Nelson criminal lawyers say.

They say a warning system or police diversion is needed to keep minor cases out of court.

Police have a zero tolerance policy towards domestic violence.

Nelson lawyer Mark Dollimore said many more minor domestic violence cases were coming through the courts than in the past, and it was "PC gone mad".

"It's like this big net where [police] have to charge everything in sight."

In the Nelson District Court this week, Judge David McKegg threw out two cases of low-level domestic violence involving women charged with hitting their partners.

In one case, a woman was charged with assaulting her husband. The couple were walking home along Main Rd Stoke after a night out when they started arguing. The woman walked away and her husband grabbed her arm. She swung her arm back, hitting him in the face. The woman did not have any previous convictions.

Judge McKegg said the law "does not want to get involved in anything as minor as that".

He threw out another case where an Australian woman on holiday in Nelson slapped her husband in the face during an argument. She also had no police record.

Dollimore, who represented the woman, said she should never have been charged. She had a brain injury and her husband - a policeman in Australia - had been baiting her badly.

Dollimore said bringing minor cases to court was expensive, clogged the system, and brought stress to households.

"The lack of discretion, the lack of flexibility is impractical."

He said a warning system or police diversion was needed for first-time domestic violence offences, so people could still be held accountable, while leaving the courts to focus on more serious cases.

Diversion is available to first offenders charged with a minor offence, allowing them to avoid a criminal conviction.

Dollimore said it was not available for people facing domestic violence charges in Nelson, which was an anomaly.

"Everyone tiptoes around it, particularly in a male assaults female charge - thinking if we give any flexibility, he will go home and kill her and that will be the end of my career. It's over-reactive."

Nelson lawyer Steven Zindel said that while domestic violence was a serious issue, he and other lawyers thought the zero tolerance policy towards it created its own injustices.

"Suddenly you have a minor slap between partners, who love each other, and that's treated as a whole major sin, as opposed to some of the nasty comments that get said between partners and which might provoke such conduct.

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"The offenders may be in the cells over the weekend, partners will be separated by bail conditions, charges may be defended on the basis of a push-push being claimed to be self defence, and police and court resources will all be stretched as a result."

While some of the lower-level domestic assaults coming to court might technically fit the label of a domestic assault, pursuing them through the courts was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, Mr Zindel said. He did not believe criminal law should be involved in isolated family blow-ups unless it was repeated or significant violence.

Zindel said some of the cases brought to court drove families apart, and blighted the futures of some people with convictions which could affect their careers or travel.

"I think perhaps we have lost our way a bit with over-prosecution of domestic violence, when diversion of more serious offences than some instances of domestic violence reportedly occurs more easily.

"I'm referring not to the serious, Once Were Warriors-type of cases but where some small element of physicality creeps into a banal domestic exchange, and where all concerned are content to let bygones be bygones."

Sergeant John Maxwell, of Nelson, said the police stance was clear - violence was not acceptable.

Domestic violence differed from other violence because the offenders often lived together and had continued involvement with each other, he said. If domestic violence was not caught early, it could escalate and become more serious, and this was backed by statistics.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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