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Victims of crime

by Nancy Swarbrick

Victims of crime are no longer left to flounder their way through the New Zealand court system. They can get advice and practical help, and have their views considered at sentencing and parole hearings. But many still suffer lasting physical and emotional harm, or are financially disadvantaged.

The victim’s experience

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.

Obtaining compensation

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.

    • Pat Mayhew and James Reilly, Victims’ experiences and needs: findings for the New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey 2006. Wellington: Ministry of Justice, 2006, p. 34. Back

Supporting victims, 1970s and 1980s

Feminist action

In the early 1970s the first women’s refuges and rape crisis services were established by feminists, who were increasingly aware of the prevalence of rape, sexual abuse and family violence in New Zealand. The services were run by women who were often survivors of violence themselves, and understood the experience of being a victim.

Community concern

In the late 1970s and early 1980s property crime surged. Community concern led to the formation of Neighbourhood Watch in 1980, a scheme for neighbours to support each other in preventing burglaries. Widespread horror at a violent sexual attack in Auckland in 1983 led to an expanded scheme, Neighbourhood Support. In 1985 Citizens Against Violence was formed in Auckland, and circulated a petition calling for increased penalties for violent crime. That year the Salvation Army in Auckland began a victim support service, and a police-initiated service began in Gisborne. Soon other Salvation Army, police and community-run schemes emerged.

An international movement

In 1985 New Zealand signed the United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power. This urged consideration of the victims’ perspective, and called for fair access to, and information about, justice services, restitution, and compensation for injury. New Zealand was co-sponsor of the UN declaration, and this led activists to demand more government action on victims’ rights in this country.


Against this background of mounting anxiety about crime and concern for victims, the Criminal Justice Act 1985 introduced new sentences, including reparation. Used mainly for property offences, reparation involved both restitution and reconciliation. At a meeting mediated by probation officers, the victim and offender discussed how much money would make good the damage done. Reparation could be the only sentence, or imposed along with another such as community service. Importantly, it gave victims the opportunity to participate in the justice process. However it soon proved time-consuming to administer, and was used less often. In any case, many offenders did not or could not pay reparation.

Support for victims

In 1987 a committee of inquiry into violence recommended police training in victim support, and better services for victims. It also supported the provisions of a Victims’ Rights bill then before parliament.

The Victims of Offences Act 1987 was a breakthrough for victims of crime. They were granted rights to health and welfare services, and legal advice and help. Judges were to be given a victim impact statement, describing the effects of the crime, at sentencing time. Victims could have input into decisions about bail for certain offences, and apply to be notified if an offender escaped or was released from prison. The Victims Taskforce was set up to ensure victims received information about their rights, and to co-ordinate support services.

Victim Support

In 1990 the New Zealand Council of Victim Support Groups, better known as Victim Support, became the national coordinating body for victim support organisations, providing a 24-hour 7-day-a-week support service for crime and trauma victims. It also advocated on behalf of victims, and later administered government-funded schemes to provide or subsidise counselling and other costs for victims of serious crime.

Law reforms, 1990s and 21st century

The issue of victims’ rights became more political from the 1990s. The rising crime rate aroused people’s fears of being victimised: recorded crime doubled between 1970 and 2000, with the offence rate peaking in 1992. While rates of recorded crime have dropped substantially since the mid 1990s, public concern about crime continues, particularly the less common crimes of murder and rape.

1999 referendum

In 1999 a referendum proposing greater support for victims of crime and heavier sentences for violent offences received overwhelming public support, prompting further law changes. It originated when Norm Withers of Christchurch, whose elderly mother was attacked while minding his shop in 1997, started a law-and-order petition. This attracted considerably more than the 250,000 signatures needed to force a referendum.

Sensible Sentencing Trust

The time was ripe for the formation in 2001 of a pressure group, the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Focusing on stiffer sentences for crimes of extreme violence, the trust also advocated victims’ rights, and attracted support from the victims of many high-profile crimes. In the 2010s it continued to support victims of serious violent and/or sexual crime and homicide, as well as providing assistance to their families.

Extending compensation

In 2001 the Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, a revision of the previous Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) scheme, extended compensation for physical and, in limited cases, mental injury. It provided rehabilitation, compensation for loss of earnings during recovery, lump-sum compensation for permanent disability and entitlements for fatal injuries.

Legislative changes, 2002

The Victims’ Rights Act 2002 strengthened the provisions of the Victims of Offences Act 1987. It introduced guiding principles for the treatment of victims, including giving them information about court cases, as well as access to welfare, health, counselling, medical and legal services. It also required prosecutors to put victims’ views on bail, and information about the harm they had suffered, before the judge. Greater emphasis was placed on victim-impact statements.

Two views

Restorative justice is voluntary, and opinions about its effectiveness vary. When a convicted tagger failed to turn up at a restorative justice conference in 2008, his victim said, ‘Now I feel like he has got off … I wanted to tell him how it felt, to speak on behalf of other victims.’ But another woman who had a series of conferences with the driver of a car in which her son was killed said, ‘The pain never goes away but what you are left with as a result of restorative justice is a mental sense of peace.’1

The Sentencing Act 2002 and the Parole Act 2002 replaced the Criminal Justice Act 1985. The Sentencing Act made it obligatory for judges to impose the sentence of reparation for loss of property or money, damage to property, or emotional harm, unless it would cause the offender undue hardship or there were special circumstances. It supported making offenders more accountable to victims, and allowed judges to consider any offers of amends by offenders when sentencing. The Parole Act enabled victims to make submissions to the Parole Board.

Restorative justice

The Victims’ Rights, Sentencing and Parole acts emphasised the principle of restorative justice, which had similarities to Māori dispute resolution processes. Restorative justice brought together all those involved in a crime in an attempt to put things right as far as possible. It had been applied in various situations, such as family group conferences for youth offenders, before 2002. Thereafter it was given greater prominence in the justice system.

Addressing victims’ rights and compensation

Further attempts were made in the 2010s to address issues relating to victims of crime. In August 2011 the Victims of Crime Reform Bill was introduced to amend Victims’ Rights Act 2002, the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, the Parole Act 2002, and the Sentencing Act 2002. This followed a parliamentary inquiry in 2006–7 that highlighted on-going problems for victims of crime.

One of the outcomes of that review was the introduction in 2010 of a $50.00 levy on offenders who had been convicted of an offence. This levy is paid into a separate victims’ services bank account and used to fund additional payments to victims of crime.

The Victims of Crime Reform Bill was not passed until 2014 and took the form of detailed amendments to existing legislation that focused on defining the rights of victims, increasing their access to information and enhancing the accountability of government services to victims. Under the Sentencing Amendment Act 2014, victims’ access to restorative justice was increased.

    • Arwen Hann, ‘Victim, offender strain to see eye-to-eye’, Press, 3 March 2008, p. xx. Back

Ongoing issues for victims

Despite progress, in the 2010s many issues remained unresolved.

Community-based responses – funding issues

Voluntary Victim Support groups were set up in different parts of New Zealand in the 1980s and in 1993 a National Office for Victim Support Groups was established. A 0800 Victim crisis line was set up in 1997 and by 2004 a national structure was set up to manage the employment of staff and the delivery of national and local programmes of victim support. 

Police rely on victim support groups to provide crisis services. Groups such as Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis also work to ensure the safety of victims and prevent further offending. However many groups, such as Victim Support/Manaaki Tāngata, receive only partial government funding, and must depend on donations and sponsorship.

In 2016 Victim Support had 120 paid and over 600 volunteer staff in over 60 locations around New Zealand. It relies on donations, fundraising events and support from the NZ Police and the Ministry of Justice.

Information for victims of crime

In 2007 a Victims Charter 2007 was set up which set out the standard of service victims should receive from government agencies and a Victims’ Rights Code was launched in September 2015. It sets out what victims of crime can expect from government agencies and organisations. The code includes the right to be informed, the right to make a victim impact statement, the right to express views on bail, and the right to make submissions relating to the parole plans for an offender. The activation of these principles in the operation of the justice system is the subject of ongoing review.  

A Victims Information Line, a Victims Centre within the Ministry of Justice and a Victims Information website were established in 2008 to rectify this. The NZ Police has a Victim Notification Register that records contact details of victims and enables them to be kept informed about the person who has been responsible for the crime. If the victim is under 17, then parents and guardians of the victim can also register as victims. Despite attempts to define victims’ rights and provide information for victims, many victims unaware of their rights and of the support services available.

Information about victims of crime

A greater understanding of crime victims’ experiences was gained from crime and safety surveys in 1996, 2001, 2006, 2009 and 2014. These surveys are used by non-governmental organisations and government agencies to inform their work with victims of crime.

In 2015, the then New Zealand Minister of Justice, Hon. Amy Adams, appointed a Chief Victims Advisor to the Government. Dr Kim McGregor was appointed to provide independent advice to the Minister of Justice on victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system and on strategies for supporting victims of crime. She was not directly involved in providing any services to victims of crime.

Addressing emotional and physical harm

Victims of serious crime, such as homicide, sexual assault or violent assault have been eligible financial grants from the Accident Compensation Commission to meet the costs arising out of these crimes. Grants can include the costs of burial, cremation and related services as well as counselling sessions for victims, families, friends and witnesses of a violent crime. Grants are also available to attend High Court hearings, other court hearings, parole board or coronial hearings, or restorative justice meetings. Some discretionary cash grants are also available.

These grants are accessed through Victim Support and victims of crime need to register as a client of Victim Support before they can access these grants.

Financial disadvantage

Many victims never receive reparation – for instance if an offender is not caught, or not convicted. Often an offender fails to pay, or pays slowly in small instalments, making it difficult for the victim to recover from the crime.

Aside from property losses as a result of the offence, victims may face other costs, such as travelling to attend court hearings. Victims of serious crimes sometimes have to give up work while recovering from physical or emotional trauma. These expenses are not fully covered by current support schemes.

In 2010 the New Zealand Law Commission/Te Aka Matua O Te Ture produced an extensive report on compensating crime victims in response to a request from the Government in 2008 to consider what improvements could be made to existing schemes of compensation. The report concluded that existing arrangements for compensation should be retained. However, the report noted that many victims of crime are not compensated because the offenders are unknown or the known offenders have no resources to pay them any reparation. The Law Commission argued that these should be improvements in current systems for enforcing orders for compensation.

Reparation arrears

In 2001 offenders avoided paying $38.5 million in court-ordered reparation. In 2005 the sum owed to victims but not paid was $59.2 million, and in 2009 it was $78.1 million. It had grown to $97 million by 2013.

Questioning the justice system

The justice system has been modified to take victims into account. Defendants in sex-offence and family-violence trials are no longer allowed to cross-examine the complainant, and vulnerable witnesses can be screened from the defendant when giving evidence. However, many victims still find the court process harrowing.

Restorative justice processes  have been used more frequently, particularly in the youth justice system and there is some evidence of reduced reoffending among young offenders aged 17 – 19 when restorative practices are used. Restorative justice includes offenders hearing directly from victims of crime about the impacts of their actions and being required to respond to these statements.

Despite innovation in the justice system, has been criticised for failing to respond in culturally appropriate ways to Māori crime victims. In addition, restorative justice has been criticised. There are often insufficient resources for proper facilitation of meetings. The process works only if the offender accepts guilt, and if both parties agree to take part. Its use for sexual and family violence crimes has been seen as unhelpful for victims.

Parallel justice

The current justice system helps only some victims, as it is based on the offender being tried and convicted. Many crime victims do not report the crime, and many offenders are not caught.

Victims Support advocates ‘parallel justice’ as a way of meeting victims’ needs. This process does not depend on the arrest and prosecution of an offender, and would provide adequate counselling support, compensation and practical assistance for all victims. This approach to justice focuses on the victim’s safety, immediate support, their opportunity to explain the incident and its effect on them. Parallel justice requires that victims access resources, support, financial assistance and public recognition that a crime has occurred, regardless of whether an offender is arrested or convicted.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Victims of crime', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 15 Jul 2018