A victim of crime is anyone who suffers physical injury, emotional harm or property loss as the result of an illegal act committed by someone else – an individual, a group or even a company. If a victim is killed or permanently disabled, his or her relatives can also be victims.
It is hard to assess numbers of victims in New Zealand, for several reasons. Serious crimes affect not just the primary victim but people associated with them, creating multiple victims. Some crimes, like rape, may not be reported because the victim wants to avoid the trauma of a police investigation and court proceedings. The New Zealand crime and safety survey 2014 found that only 31% of crime was reported to police.
The need to know more about victims of crime has led to the development of a specialist field of criminology called victimology. Research into victims’ experiences has identified issues for policy and law makers to address.
Research shows some groups, particularly people living in deprived neighbourhoods, are more likely to be victims of crime, and to have more serious reactions to it – although some become resigned to it and develop a tolerance. Over 50% of crime is experienced by 6% of the population, and Māori are more likely to be victims than other New Zealanders. A small number of people are victimised repeatedly.
Effects of crime
The impact of crime on individuals ranges ‘from the minimal to the catastrophic’.1 For many people, confrontational offences, including sexual offences, assaults and threats, have devastating effects, but property offences such as burglary and theft can also be deeply disturbing.
Physical injury is the most visible effect of crimes such as assault, but the emotional impact of all types of crime can be even more damaging. Reactions can include anger, shock or fear. Many people report being more aware of danger, and some lose confidence. Victims may be tearful, have difficulty sleeping, suffer depression or anxiety, or experience feelings of guilt or shame. Some later have drug or alcohol problems and relationship difficulties, and a few develop post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental injuries or illnesses. If victims are treated callously or judgementally during criminal investigations or a trial, they can be further traumatised. This is called re-victimisation or secondary victimisation.
Victim of the media
Inaccurate or biased reporting, publishing irrelevant or sensitive personal information, taking photos without consent and demanding information are ways that the media can make the victim’s ordeal worse. In one case, for example, detailed remarks about a 16-year-old rape victim’s appearance were published in the local newspaper, making her recognisable to a number of readers, and intensifying her distress.
Burglary and similar crimes usually involve property loss or damage that may not be covered by insurance. Any crime can force the victim to take time off work, resulting in loss of earnings and other expenses.
Victims and the legal system
New Zealand’s legal system views crime as an offence against the community as a whole and not just individual victims of crime. Criminal justice once aimed solely to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused person, and to deliver punishment to deter future offending and protect the community. The victim of the crime played little part in this process, and received no compensation. Victims often found it very upsetting to relive the crime, give evidence and be cross-examined.
The Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1963 was the first attempt to compensate crime victims for personal injury. From 1972 the Accident Compensation Scheme provided more comprehensive cover. Injured victims also received social security benefits, as did their dependants if they died. However the only way a crime victim could recover uninsured financial or property losses was by taking a civil action in tort against the offender. Obtaining redress for emotional suffering was virtually impossible.