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Violent crime

by Greg Newbold

Murders, rapes and assaults dominate newspaper headlines and outrage the public – but violent crime is only 14% of recorded offences. However, the number of cases of all types of violent crime has increased since the Second World War.

Trends in violent crime

Violence as a public issue

Violent crime attracts more public attention in New Zealand than other forms of crime. Murders, assaults and rapes can dominate newspaper headlines, attract television news viewers and ignite debates about the need for harsher sentences for offenders and better support for victims of crime. However, violent crime was only 14% of all reported victimisations (people, organisations and properties that were victims of a criminal offence) in 2020, and murder and manslaughter made up less than 0.2% of all recorded violent offences between 1994 and 2014, and just 0.06% of all violent crime victimisations between 2015 and 2020.

Between 2007 and 2020 there were 1,005 homicide (murder and manslaughter) victims in New Zealand. This figure includes the 51 victims of the terror attacks in Christchurch in 2019. Leaving aside this anomalous event, the annual average of 68 homicide victims remained stable in this period.

Types of violent crime

Violent crime includes homicide (such as murder and manslaughter), kidnapping and abduction, robbery, assaults (grievous, serious or minor), intimidation and threats, and group assemblies (offences such as unlawful assembly, harassment and rioting). Much of the violent crime reported to the police relates to minor offences. Acts intended to cause injury were 85% of all reported crime victimisations in 2023. However, serious assaults resulting in injury were around 62% of all assault victimisations between 2015 and 2023.

Family violence, sexual abuse and child abuse usually occur behind closed doors and are often unreported. As a result, official figures reveal only a fraction of the true incidence of these crimes.

Family violence

The number of family disputes reported peaked in the early 1990s, dropped in the mid-1990s, then rose again at the end of the decade. In the early 21st century the number of family disputes reported grew steadily, with 69,729 family violence cases investigated by the police in 2007 and 118,910 in 2016.  Approximately 40% of all homicides are family related.

The Family Violence Act 2018 was a new attempt to combat family violence. Perpetrators of family violence had often only been charged with common assault, which did not attract a heavy penalty. The new legislation introduced specific family violence crimes, and criminalised behaviours often associated with family violence. The act of strangulation and suffocation was made a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of seven years. Researchers had found that such behaviour is often a warning that more serious offending may occur in the future. During the first three years this legislation was in place, the police laid more than 3,500 charges of strangulation.

Violence against children

In the 2010s the Department of Child, Youth and Family (CYF) received around 150,000 notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect each year. About 60,000 of these cases required further action. In the year 2015/16, 2,953 children under 17 years of age were reported as having experienced physical abuse. Due to changed recording methods, this figure cannot be compared with previous data.  

Between 2007 and 2020, 127 children under the age of 15 were victims of homicide. Those under five were most at risk, amounting to over three-quarters of all child homicides.

Kidnapping and abduction

In New Zealand law, kidnapping is the unlawful detention or carrying away of a person against his or her will. Abduction is carrying away a woman or girl for the purpose of marrying her or having sex with her without her consent. Kidnapping and abduction both carry a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.

These crimes were uncommon in New Zealand, with fewer than 100 a year until the late 1990s. However, more than 300 abductions and kidnappings were recorded annually between 2006 and 2009. The average between 2015 and 2023 was 412, but this figure is not comparable with earlier data.

Increases in violent crime

Rates of all forms of violent crime (based on both reports and convictions) have generally increased since the Second World War, although there have been fluctuations around this overall trend.

Violent crimes reported to the police increased from 640 per 100,000 people in 1985 to a peak of 1,562 in 1996. After that they decreased slightly before rising again. In 2008, nearly 1,400 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 people. Recent increases in reports of violent crime are related to a rise in recorded family violence. There is now lower tolerance of family violence, and training initiatives have increased police responsiveness to complaints of family violence.

Reported violent crime peaked in 2009 at 66,464 offences, then fell a little over the next five years. The police's new recording method, introduced in 2014, shows the number of violent crime victimisations increasing by 33% between 2015 and 2023.

International comparisons

In 2000 New Zealand’s rate of violent crime was slightly higher than Australia’s. There were almost identical rates for homicide, but New Zealand had higher rates for assault, while Australia’s sexual-assault rates were higher. International comparison of crime rates, including rates of violent crime, is difficult because countries record crime in different ways.

In 2004/5, New Zealand had the highest rate of physical assaults, threats and sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner of any member country of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Prison sentences

Prison sentences for violent offences are harsher than those for other crimes. The Criminal Justice Act 1985 made imprisonment virtually mandatory for violent offences punishable by at least five years’ imprisonment. Amendments to this legislation in 1987 and 1993 increased the length of both imprisonment and non-parole periods (the period during which an offender cannot apply for an early release from prison) for violent offences. Release conditions were tightened and the maximum penalty for sexual violation was extended from 14 years to 20. Average sentences for serious offences increased sharply between 1986 and 1996.

The Parole Act 2002 and the Sentencing Act 2002 created a minimum non-parole period of 17 years for murder committed under certain aggravating circumstances (including killing more than one person, killing during a home invasion, or using a high level of brutality), and extended the scope of preventive detention (indefinite imprisonment). Prison sentences increased; there were fewer early-parole releases and more recalls for parole violation. In the 2020s, lobby groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust continue to argue that more severe sentences are needed to deter violent crime and provide a form of justice for victims. Others argue for a more rehabilitative approach to offending.

The profile of criminal violence appears to have altered little in response to these changes in sentencing and parole. However, in 2010 the National-led government introduced a version of the American ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, with stronger penalties for repeat violent and sexual offenders. Those with a third strike were now required to serve the maximum sentence applicable to the offence without the possibility of parole. In practice, however, the courts used a provision in the law to allow eligibility for parole in every third strike case.

In 2020 the Labour-led government repealed the three strikes policy, arguing that it had not led to a reduction in serious crime or functioned as an effective deterrent, and had restricted judges’ ability to take individual circumstances into account. The National-led government elected in 2023 promised to reintroduce three-strikes legislation.

Murder and manslaughter

Types of homicide

There are two main categories of culpable homicide (the illegal killing of one person by another) – murder and manslaughter. Murder is when one person kills another deliberately or while acting recklessly, knowing that death is likely. Manslaughter generally refers to a homicide arising from an unlawful act or failure to act, where death could not reasonably be expected to result.

Murder and manslaughter rates

Rates of reported murder and manslaughter (culpable homicides) increased from an annual average of 18 in the 1950s to 43 in the 1970s. They reached a peak of more than 90 per year in the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2015, reported homicides stabilised at an average of 66 per year. Between 2007 and 2020 there were an average of 49 murders a year (excluding the 51 at two Christchurch mosques in 2019). 

Between 2007 and 2020, 65% of homicide victims were male and 10% were children under the age of five. Māori (15% of the population) were 32% of the victims of murder. Weapons were used in 60% of homicides, but firearms were used in only 17% of cases. In about 40% of cases where the victim–offender relationship was known, the offender was a member of the victim’s family. About 16% of homicide victims between 2007 and 2020 were killed by their partner.

Reasons for increases

There are two possible reasons for the increased number of murders and manslaughters in the 1990s.

  • Several high-profile multiple killings increased the homicide rate.
  • An increase in unemployment, which peaked in 1991 at 11% of the workforce, coincided with increased rates of homicide. As unemployment fell, there was a drop in recorded violence, including homicide.

Reasons for decreases

Several factors may have contributed to the decreases in the murder and manslaughter rates in the early 21st century.

  • Toughened gun control laws after the Aramoana massacre of 1990 and the Christchurch massacre of 2019 restricted legal access to firearms, which were used in about 25% of all murders prior to 1990.
  • The expansion of women’s refuges and the full implementation of presumptive arrest in domestic-violence cases in the 1990s reduced the number of domestic homicides (which account for 40% of all murders).
  • Improvements in medical technology have reduced the number of deaths resulting from trauma.

Penalties for homicide


In nearly all cases of murder, life imprisonment is mandatory. This usually means a non-parole period of at least 10 years. If aggravating features are present – for instance, more than one person is killed, or the crime involves extreme cruelty – the automatic minimum non-parole period is 17 years.

First and last executions

The first person judicially executed in New Zealand was Maketū Wharetōtara, the son of the Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe of Waimate (North). Aged about 16, he was publicly hanged in Auckland in 1842 after being convicted of killing five people on Motuarohia (Roberton) Island in the Bay of Islands. The last person hanged was Walter Bolton, a 68-year-old Whanganui farm manager who was executed in 1957 for fatally poisoning his wife, Beatrice. The Crown alleged that Bolton had regularly put small amounts of powdered sheep dip (containing arsenic) into her tea. Between 1842 and 1957, 85 people were executed for murder in New Zealand.

In cases of manslaughter, a judge has discretion to impose any penalty up to life imprisonment.

A sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole has been imposed only once in New Zealand. This sentence was given to Brenton Tarrant for carrying out the Christchurch mosque shootings on 15 March 2019. Prior to this, the longest non-parole period ever given in New Zealand was 30 years, to William Bell for murdering three people at the Mt Wellington–Panmure RSA club in 2001 while he was on parole for aggravated robbery.

Capital punishment

Until 1941 hanging was mandatory for murder, although many death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. 77 people were executed between the time New Zealand became a Crown colony in 1840 and the abolition of the death penalty in 1941.

In 1950 capital punishment resumed as a result of public pressure, and eight more men were hanged before it was finally abolished in 1961. Only one woman was executed in New Zealand – Williamina (Minnie) Dean was hanged at Invercargill in 1895 for the murder of a baby.

Controversial murder trials, 1840–1939

Murder trials have always attracted public attention in New Zealand, particularly if the accused is female, or has a relative who is well known; or if a baby or young child was the victim.

Thomas Hall

Thomas Hall, member of an elite Timaru family, was also the town’s most notorious murderer. His wife Kate inherited the estate of her wealthy stepfather, Captain Henry Cain, and then became mysteriously ill in mid-1886, soon after her son was born. When a visiting family member fell ill after drinking tea Hall had prepared for Kate, poisoning was suspected. Hall was arrested and found guilty of attempted murder and forgery. He was on the brink of bankruptcy and had stood to gain from his wife’s will and two insurance policies.

After the trial, the body of Henry Cain was exhumed and he was found to have been poisoned. Hall was convicted of Cain’s murder, but this was overturned on appeal. After leaving prison in 1907, he received an annuity from his uncle, Sir John Hall, who had been premier of New Zealand from 1879 to 1882.

Minnie Dean

Williamina (Minnie) Dean is the only woman ever to have been hanged in New Zealand. She was sentenced to death in 1895 for the murder of 11-month-old Dorothy Edith Carter, whose body had been buried in the garden of Dean’s home in Winton. The body of one-month-old Eva Hornsby and the skeleton of a small child were also found buried in the garden. Dean, an unregistered ‘baby farmer’ (a woman who looked after unwanted children for pay), was caring for several other children at the time. Her trial highlighted the vulnerability of children born to unmarried mothers and the limited regulation of their care.

Lionel Terry

Lionel Terry shot Joe Kum Yung in Haining Street, Wellington, on 24 September 1905 as a protest against immigration to New Zealand by non-Europeans. Terry reported his crime at the nearest police station and handed over the revolver he had used. At his trial he made grandiose speeches about the need to rid the British Empire of ‘aliens’ and resisted suggestions that he was mentally ill.

Terry was convicted of murder, but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by reason of insanity. He spent the rest of his life in prisons or secure units in Sunnyside and Seacliff mental hospitals. He was frequently involved in escape attempts and violent interactions with prisoners and prison guards, and continued to assert the political nature of his crime.

Daniel Richard Cooper

The discovery of the bodies of three newborn children on a small farm at Newlands, near Wellington, in 1923 led to the arrest of Daniel Richard Cooper and his wife, Martha Elizabeth. Cooper (who ran a ‘health business’ that included illegal abortions and adoption arrangements) had already been arrested for criminal abortion. The combination of murder and abortion charges contributed to high public interest in the murder trial. Martha’s defence lawyer argued that she was not responsible because her husband had forced her to collaborate with him, and she was acquitted. Cooper was found guilty and hanged.

Controversial murder trials since 1940

There have been a number of significant murder trials since the Second World War. They have included the 1954 trial of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, teenagers charged with the murder of Parker’s mother; the wrongful conviction in 1971 of Waikato farmer Arthur Allan Thomas for the murder of his neighbours; and John Barlow’s three trials for the murder of father-and-son financiers Eugene and Gene Thomas in 1994.

Parker and Hulme

Pauline Parker (16) and Juliet Hulme (15) were convicted in 1954 of the murder of Pauline’s mother Honorah, who received 45 blows to the head, hands and body in Christchurch's Victoria Park from half a brick wrapped in a lisle stocking. The girls claimed that Honorah had fallen and hurt her head. Juliet, daughter of the rector of Canterbury University College, was about to leave New Zealand with her father for South Africa, as her parents were separating. Pauline’s mother was seen as an impediment to Pauline accompanying Juliet.

Pauline’s diary provided an account of their relationship, and their plans for the murder and a future in which the girls would write novels and pursue stardom in Hollywood. A defence of insanity was rejected. The girls were given life sentences which they served in different prisons before being released after five years. Both later moved to the United Kingdom, where Hulme reinvented herself as the successful mystery writer Anne Perry. She died in 2023.

A book, a play and a Peter Jackson-directed movie, Heavenly creatures, have presented different interpretations of the relationship between the girls, the reasons for the murder, and the trial. 

Arthur Allan Thomas

In 1971, Waikato farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted of the 1970 murder of his neighbours Harvey and Jeanette Crewe at Pukekawa. The Crewes’ weighted bodies with bullet wounds had been discovered in the Waikato River three months after their disappearance. Mystery surrounded the identity of the person who fed Rochelle, the Crewes’ two-year-old daughter, who was found by her grandfather in her cot five days after her parents were last seen alive.

Thomas protested his innocence and appealed against his conviction. Granted a retrial, he was convicted again in 1973. Thomas served nine years of his life sentence before being pardoned. A royal commission of inquiry held over 64 days in 1980 found that he had been wrongfully convicted. He was pardoned for the murders (effectively acquitted) and awarded almost $1 million in compensation.

John Barlow

John Barlow was tried three times for the murder of father-and-son financiers Eugene and Gene Thomas, who were shot in their Wellington office building in 1994. Barlow, who had a loan from the Thomases, claimed that he went to the office for a meeting, found the bodies, panicked, and left with a CZ 27 pistol registered in his name, which he had earlier loaned to Eugene Thomas. The police found the pistol, .32-calibre ammunition, and a cut-up silencer in a rubbish tip where Barlow had dumped them. However, the pistol had a .22-calibre barrel, while a .32-calibre gun had killed the Thomases. After two trials ended in hung juries, Barlow was convicted of murder in 1995. His appeal to the Privy Council was rejected in 2009, despite a finding that ‘unscientific and untenable’ FBI forensic evidence had been presented at the third trial.1 Barlow was released from prison in 2010.

Mark Lundy

In 2000 Palmerston North woman Christine Lundy and her daughter Amber were found bludgeoned to death in their home. Six months later, their husband and father Mark Lundy, who had been out of town on business on the night of their deaths, was charged with their murders. The prosecution alleged that he had driven from Petone to Palmerston North, committed the murders, and then returned to Petone at high speed. Lundy was found guilty in 2002 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He continued to proclaim his innocence and appealed to the Privy Council in London, which in 2013 overturned his conviction and ordered a retrial. After the prosecution presented new scientific evidence and proposed a revised chronology of events, Lundy was again convicted and returned to prison in 2015.


Mass murders, 1840–1989

Mass murders (the murder of four or more people at one time) have been rare in New Zealand, particularly before 1990.

Maketū Wharetōtara

In 1841 five people were killed on a Bay of Islands farm by Maketū Wharetōtara (aged about 16), the son of Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe. Maketū killed his employer Elizabeth Roberton, her two children, Thomas Bull, and Isabella Brind, the granddaughter of Rewa, a Ngāpuhi leader. Abuse by Bull, who worked with Maketū on Roberton’s farm, appears to have prompted these murders. Maketū’s father handed his son over to the authorities to avoid conflict with Rewa. He was convicted and hanged in 1842.

James Stack

In September 1865, neighbours noticed that Ōtāhuhu woman Mary Finnigan and her three sons were missing. Finnigan’s son-in-law James Stack, who lived in the family home, said they had gone to the West Coast goldfields. After Stack abruptly left Ōtāhuhu in December, the property was searched and the bodies of Mary, 17-year-old James and 14-year-old Benjamin were found buried in the garden. Stack was apprehended, tried, and convicted of murdering the four Finnigans. He was hanged in 1866. The body of 10-year-old John was found in 1869.

Burgess gang

Five men were robbed and killed on the Maungatapu Track near Nelson in 1866 by the Burgess gang: Richard Burgess (also known as Richard Hill), William (Phil) Levy, Thomas Noon (also known as Thomas Kelly) and Joseph Sullivan. After selling the gold they had stolen, the gang was arrested, and Sullivan testified against the others. Burgess, Levy and Noon were found guilty and executed. Sullivan was sent to prison in Dunedin after being convicted of one of the murders. He was deported to England, but escaped to Australia, where he was imprisoned before disappearing in 1876.

James Baxter

In 1908 Invercargill merchant James Baxter murdered his wife and five children in the family home before committing suicide. Baxter had been ill with cholera the month before and acquaintances noted at the inquest that he had seemed depressed before the murders, but his motive remained a mystery. 

Hēnare Hona

Four members of the Davenport family were killed near Te Kūiti in 1934 by 20-year-old Hēnare Hona. While he was being arrested for the murders, Hona killed police constable Thomas Heeps with a .32 pistol. He then died by suicide.

Stanley Graham

In 1941, seven people were killed at Kōwhitirangi on the South Island’s West Coast by 41-year-old farmer Stanley Graham, who had refused to hand over his rifle to police to assist the war effort. Among the dead were police sergeant William Cooper and constables Edward Best, Frederick Jordan and Percy Tulloch. Eleven days later, Graham came out of the bush near his farm and died from gunshot wounds inflicted by police and home guardsmen.

Mass homicides since 1990

David Gray  

Thirteen people, including police constable Stewart Guthrie, were killed in Aramoana, near Port Chalmers, in 1990 by 33-year-old David Gray, who was shot dead by police the next day after a siege.

Brian Schlaepfer

In 1992, 64-year-old Brian Schlaepfer murdered his wife, his three sons, the wife of one son and a grandson in Paerātā, south of Auckland. Schlaepfer then killed himself. His granddaughter survived by barricading herself in a bedroom.

Raymond Ratima

In 1992, 25-year-old Raymond Ratima killed seven members of his Masterton family, including three of his own children. Ratima and his wife had been having problems in their relationship and were living with her parents. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bain family killings

Five members of the Bain family were killed in Dunedin in 1994. In 1995 22-year-old David Bain, the only survivor, was convicted of murdering his mother, his father, his two sisters and his younger brother. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 16-year non-parole period.

From the start there was controversy over whether David was responsible or whether his father Robin had killed the others and then shot himself while David was out on his paper run. After an appeal to the Privy Council succeeded in 2007, David Bain was retried in the Christchurch High Court in 2009 and acquitted.

Alan Lory

Six residents of the New Empire Hotel in Hamilton died when Alan Lory (41) set fire to the building in 1995. Lory was acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter and arson and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 2009.

Stephen Anderson

22-year-old Stephen Anderson killed six people and wounded another eight at a ski lodge in Raurimu, near Taumarunui, on 8 February 1997. Among the dead were friends invited to join the Anderson family for the weekend. Found to be legally insane, Anderson was committed to secure psychiatric care. He was freed from care in 2009 but recalled in 2011. He was again released and worked as a tutor at a Wellington art school, but lost his job after his position was publicised in 2014.

Christchurch mosque terrorist attack

On 15 March 2019, self-proclaimed ‘white nationalist’ Brenton Tarrant opened fire on worshippers at mosques in Deans Ave and Linwood, killing 51 people and wounding 49. The Australian-born shooter used five weapons, including two semi-automatic assault rifles, in the attack. The death toll would have been even higher but for the heroism displayed by unarmed men at both mosques, and by the police officers who forced the assailant’s car off the road in central Christchurch. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as one of New Zealand’s darkest days.

Robberies and assaults

Robbery and violence

Robberies differ from burglaries in that they are thefts that involve the use or threat of violence. Robberies are divided into two principal types: simple robbery, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment; and aggravated robbery, which can incur a 14-year sentence. Aggravated robbery is robbery committed by more than one person, or with a weapon, or where a victim suffers grievous bodily harm.

The incidence of robbery began to grow markedly in the 1950s and jumped sharply after 1970, reaching 1,954 in 1996 – 68 times the 1950 total and 12 times the 1970 figure. Numbers then fell for nearly a decade but rose again from 2004. The 2,916 robberies in 2006 were 73% higher than the number in 1999. The number of robberies reported annually then fell before stabilising at around 2,000 between 2012 and 2014. Between 2015 and 2023, the annual number of victimisations for robbery and related offences increased from 3,269 to 5,144. These figures are not comparable with pre-2014 data due to changes in recording methodology. 

Increased use of EFTPOS and credit cards has made robbery far less profitable than it was when cash was king, and much-improved security – including stationing security guards outside banks – has sharply reduced the chances of a successful getaway. Most robberies involve minor heists. Police  investigate large-scale robberies vigorously, and the perpetrators are usually identified and sent to prison for lengthy periods. As a result, the professional robber began to disappear in the 1990s. Robbers were now younger and less sophisticated, and the big hauls of the past – such as the $295,000 security van hold-up at an Auckland Foodtown supermarket in 1984 (equivalent to $1.2 million in 2024) – became rare in the 21st century.

Rates of aggravated robbery

As with other forms of violence, New Zealand has seen a long-term increase in both the incidence and seriousness of robbery. The number of robberies in the early 1960s was less than 4% of those in the early 21st century, and only about 10% of them were aggravated robberies. In 2000, by contrast 91% of all robberies were aggravated.

Grievous and serious assaults

Increasing assault rates

Like other forms of violent crime, non-sexual assaults increased dramatically after 1950. The number of recorded assaults in 1970 was more than seven times that in 1950. Recorded assaults increased by 70% between 1970 and 1980, and they grew by another 55% over the next 10 years.

The number of recorded assaults peaked in the mid-1990s at 36,000, then fluctuated over the next two decades. An all-time high of 45,275 was reached in 2009; there were 39,944 in 2014 number. The number of recorded victimisations involving acts intended to cause injury fluctuated around 50,000 from 2015 to 2019, then began to increase each year, reaching nearly 70,000 in 2023.

Increasing seriousness

The seriousness of assaults also increased in the late 20th century. In 1978, non-sexual assaults were divided into three categories: minor (generally with a maximum of up to one year’s imprisonment), serious (up to three years) and grievous (up to 14 years).

In 1978, one-third of all assaults were classified as ‘serious’ or ‘grievous’. By 2008, nearly two-thirds were listed under these headings. Serious assaults grew tenfold in that 30-year period; grievous assaults grew 44-fold. Changes in police recording methods make long-term comparisons difficult, but the annual number of ‘serious assaults resulting in injury’ increased from about 8,000 in the late 1990s to almost 12,000 ten years later. By 2014 the number had dropped to around 10,000. 

The total number of assault victimisations grew from 46,306 in 2015 to 69,394 in 2023. In the latter year, 28% of assault victimisations were common assaults, 39% were serious assaults without injury and 33% were serious assaults with injury. Due to the recording change in 2014, these figures cannot be compared with previous data.

Sexual assault

Rape and sexual violation

Before 1985, most sexual assaults were divided into the categories of rape (and attempted rape) and indecent assault. Rape carried a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment, attempted rape 10 years and indecent assault seven years.

Someone you know

Sexual assault is often thought of as an attack by a stranger. However, interviews with 48 women who contacted police with a rape or sexual violation complaint between 1990 and 1994 found that 70% of those responsible were known to the victim. Interviewer Jan Jordan commented that perpetrators included ‘spouses and ex-spouses, boyfriends, family members (including brothers-in-law, future fathers-in-law), neighbours, acquaintances (including friends of friends or of partners, co-residents, fellow party guests), and those with whom the woman … had a professional relationship (such as a doctor, teacher, counsellor or masseuse)’.1

When rape became a significant public issue in the 1970s, politicians were lobbied by community groups such as Rape Crisis to change the law and policing practices. Women's groups criticised the focus on the sexual history of complainants during rape trials, and police procedures that discouraged women from making rape complaints – including the stress of medical examinations by police surgeons. Feminists argued that rape victims often experienced a ‘double violation’ if they laid a complaint.2

In 1985 there was a major amendment to the Crimes Act 1961. Rape within marriage was now a crime, and the distinction between rape and other forms of sexual violence was reduced. The new law focused on ‘sexual violation’, which included rape, and ‘unlawful sexual connection’ (other forms of non-consensual sexual penetration or sexual–oral contact). Sexual violation carried a maximum sentence of 14 years, increased to 20 years in 1993. Issues relating to consent to sexual contact were also addressed in this legislation.

Comparing sexual attack figures in the post-war era is complicated by legislative changes. Differences in recording methods following law changes in 1961 and 1985 also make long-term comparisons difficult.

The international #metoo movement, which began in 2017, resulted in more women coming forward to report sexual harassment and assault. Sexual assault complaints to the police rose from 3500 in 2017 to 4000 in 2020. The police struggled to cope with the increase and many cases went unprosecuted for many years. Claims made by survivors of sexual abuse and assault to the Accident Compensation Corporation doubled between 2016 and 2021.

Reported rape

The average number of rapes reported to the police each year has grown rapidly since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1954 an annual average of 18 rapes was reported to the police. By the 1970s the figure was 253, and it was 330 in 1985 before the law change took effect.

Subsequent police statistics are unreliable, but Statistics New Zealand figures show that reported rapes were stable between 1994 and 2004, averaging 475 a year. In the following 10 years they averaged 620 a year. Reported rapes have grown steadily in the 21st century, from 457 in 2000 to 775 in 2014 – the highest figure on record. Police began recording data on sexual assault and related offences victimisations in 2014. These initially increased gradually, peaking at 7,738 in 2021 before dropping to 6,594 in 2023.

Auckland serial rapist

Malcolm Rewa had already spent four and a half years in prison for rape when he carried out more than 20 sexual attacks on women between 1987 and 1996. Forensic evidence and a blood sample provided by Rewa’s father led police to suspect that Rewa was responsible for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in Papatoetoe in March 1992 and the rape of a woman in Mt Eden in 1996. After a three-month trial for 24 rapes in 1998, Rewa was sentenced to preventive detention with a 22-year minimum parole period. In December 1998 he was found guilty of Burdett’s rape, but not her murder, and received a 14-year sentence concurrent with the sentence he was already serving. In 2019, nearly three decades after the crime was committed, Rewa was also found guilty of Burdett’s murder. Another man had been convicted of this crime but then cleared after more than 20 years in prison.

Sexual attacks

Rates of reported sexual attacks other than rape also increased from the late 20th century. There were 908 reported sexual attacks in 1978, and a peak number of 3,222 in 1993. This data cannot be compared with data since 1997, when reported attacks which were classified after investigation as ‘no offence disclosed’ were removed from the record.

Between 1997 and 2009, the number of recorded sexual attacks was relatively stable, averaging more than 2,500 a year. There were 3,016 recorded sexual assaults in 2010 and 4,046 in 2014, the highest number on record. Only half of the sexual assaults reported in 2014 were resolved (an offender was identified and warned, cautioned, or prosecuted). Statistics since 2014 are not comparable with earlier data, but the number of victimisations for sexual assault rose from 5,167 in 2015 to 6,594 in 2023.

Despite the rise in the number of sexual assaults recorded, it is estimated that only about 8% of all instances of this type of assault are reported to the police. A review of 1,955 complaints of sexual violation offences involving adults made to the police between 1 July 2005 and 31 December 2007 found that 31% of all reported complaints led to prosecutions; 42% of these prosecutions resulted in a conviction. Thirty-four per cent of the complaints were classified as ‘no offence’ and of these, almost a quarter were defined as ‘false complaints’.3

Reasons for increases in sexual assault

Changes to the law in the 1980s made it easier to report sexual assault, and probably contributed to the increase in reported offences in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was also an increase in reports of past sexual offences – nearly 60% all convictions for sexual offences in 1997 were for incidents that occurred at least two years previously.

Sexual violence and the criminal justice system

While rates of reported sexual violence increased after changes in the law in the 1980s, rates of prosecution of rape and sexual assault continued to be relatively low. In the 2010s, there was increasing attention to how the New Zealand criminal justice system responded to incidents of sexual violence reported to the police. Alternatives to the adversarial model used in trials for rape and sexual assault were presented. It was argued that the trauma of appearing in court and giving evidence discouraged women from reporting sexual violence. As a result, a two-year pilot project using specially trained judges for sexual violence cases in selected district courts began in late 2016. Complainants involved in the pilot found their cases progressed more efficiently and with less trauma and anxiety, and judges were more prepared to step in to stop inappropriate questioning. The trial was successful, and in 2019 it was recommended that specialist sexual violence courts should be set up across New Zealand.

Impact of sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault can affect people in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the assault and the relationship of the victim to the perpetrator. The impact can include increased fear and anxiety, lack of trust in personal relationships, loss of confidence, depression and anger. The experience of rape and sexual assault can have an impact on victims’ employment and study, which can affect their financial circumstances. Shame and embarrassment are often experienced. Girls and young women who have experienced sexual violence are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse. The family and friends of victims may also be affected by their experiences of rape and sexual assault.

  1. Jan Jordan, ‘Worlds apart? Women, rape and the police reporting process.’ British Journal of Criminology 41 (2001), p. 685. Back
  2. R. Barrington, ‘Rape law reform.’ Women's Studies International Forum 9 no. 1 (1986), p. 58. Back
  3. Triggs, S., Mosman, E, Jordan, J. and Kingi, F. (2009) Responding to Sexual Violence: Attrition in the New Zealand Criminal Justice System. Commissioned by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Crime and Justice Research Centre, Te Puni Rangahau, Taihara Ture, Victoria University of Wellington. Back

Violent crime and the media

Leaving aside driving offences, around half of offences reported to police are property crimes (such as theft, burglary and white-collar crime). The media under-reports these offences and focuses on violent crime. Selective and disproportionate coverage of crime, especially violent crime, can stoke public fears about crime and influence attitudes towards punishment.

The meat of the stories

In 1992 the chairperson of the Victims Task Force, Ann Ballin, outlined her thoughts on the way victims were treated by the media: ‘Victims become the meat of stories and frequently are used not only for news, but entertainment value. In this way they are exploited unmercifully. In my judgement a person who is a victim should not be subject to media attention unless that is what they want.1

Reporting on crime

Editors, journalists, and television and radio producers know that there is a public appetite for morbid, horrific or macabre news stories. 

There was a worldwide trend toward ‘infotainment’ in the 1990s and early 21st century. Mainstream newspapers became more sensationalistic, more like their populist counterparts such as New Zealand Truth. The quantity of crime news also increased. A 2002 study found that crime news coverage in New Zealand's main newspapers increased from 16.4% of content in 1992 to 19.6% in 2001. A 2008 study of leading newspapers around the world found that New Zealand’s ranked third highest in quantity of stories on crime and violent deaths.

Investigative journalism

The press sometimes keeps other organisations and individuals accountable for their actions by publicly exposing wrongful acts. For example, in the mid-1990s journalist Philip Kitchin began investigating rumours about police rapes in Rotorua in the 1980s. After intensive investigation he tracked down the alleged victim, Louise Nicholas. The Dominion Post and TVNZ broke the story in 2004 and a high-ranking police officer was subsequently convicted for perverting the course of justice.

If members of the media want to film, record, photograph or sketch a court in session, they must make an application in advance through the court registrar. The judge can approve or decline the application and can remove the media at their discretion. Jurors may not be filmed, photographed or identified. During trials, jurors must not be interviewed, and no comments made by jurors may be reported.

In-court filming was introduced in 1998, with some restrictions. Filming has only been used for high-profile trials. Most reporting still takes place on the steps outside courts or on nearby footpaths, where there are few restrictions on the use of cameras.

Crime on show

Presenter Paul Holmes pioneered television interviews with crime victims and their friends and families in 1989, when he began his half-hour Holmes show. In the late 1980s, non-fiction or ‘reality’ crime television shows arrived. Crimewatch, a show describing crimes and asking the public for leads, screened from 1987 until 1996. It sought more details on unsolved cases. The show also gave advice on personal and property safety. The reality show Police Ten 7, which first screened in 2002, followed police on the beat. This show was cancelled in 2023 after accusations of racism. Information provided by viewers did help police solve some cases.

Sensing nothing

Sensing murder, a television series in which ‘psychics’ tried to solve cold (unsolved) police cases, attracted criticism from groups such as the New Zealand Skeptics. None of these shows has solved any cases. One sceptic put up a potential prize pool of $400,000 if a psychic could prove their abilities. No one took up the challenge.

TV shows, movies and podcasts have examined real-life crimes. The movie Beyond reasonable doubt (1980) is based on the case of Arthur Allan Thomas, who spent nine years in jail for murders he was later pardoned for. Bad blood (1981) details the 12-day manhunt for Stanley Graham in 1941. The Peter Jackson film Heavenly creatures (1994) centred on two teenagers, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who murdered Parker’s mother in Christchurch in 1954. Out of the blue (2006) tells the story of the 1990 murders of 13 people at Aramoana by David Gray.

A number of these programmes have focused on examining alleged miscarriages of justice. Until proven innocent (2009) was about David Dougherty, who was wrongly convicted of crimes, and the fight to prove his innocence.

    • Quoted in Victims of crime: a training kit for journalists. Wellington: Victims Task Force, 1993. p. 1. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Greg Newbold, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 3 May 2024