20 Aug 2020

Justice Minister open to reviewing laws affecting victims of stalking

From First Up, 5:45 am on 20 August 2020

The Minister of Justice will consider the need for a stalker law and a review of current legislation after hearing victims of stalking reported incidents to police and were told nothing could be done.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little talking to media.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little talking to media. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

It comes after First Up aired the story of a 23-year-old woman who caught a man stalking her and taking inappropriate photos as she shopped in an Auckland pharmacy.

Since then - others contacted First Up to share similar experiences

Andrew Little said he was "surprised" and "disappointed' current legislation hasn't protected people - and will look at reviewing whether there are gaps in the law.

In the case of the young woman stalked and photographed in an Auckland pharmacy last month, Police told First Up they had spoken to the male stalker after the woman reported the incident to them. 

The woman, who we are calling Sarah, handed in the man's phone to police which she says had dozens of photos of her in his phone gallery.

Many of the photos zoomed in on parts of her body and face and a video of her recording his phone gallery has since gone viral.

In a statement, Police said, "On assessment of the report it involved photographs being taken in a public place which is not an offence in of itself. Police are not aware of any objectionable material involved in this matter."

Little said the response was a surprise to him. 

"As I understand it the Harassment Act would have covered that sort of activity. The repeat act of taking her photos, following her," said Little.

"We don't have a specific stalking law but we have a number of laws across a number of pieces of our criminal legislation that cover pretty much all the activity that constitutes stalking so I'm surprised that she got that result from the police."

Sarah's circumstances were similar to a second victim who shared their experience with First Up.

The man, who we will call Paul, was born with Treacher Collins syndrome which causes facial deformities. He was stalked and photographed by two teenage girls and was left shaken by the incident.

After reporting it to Police, he was also told nothing could be done.

"Again I can't understand that," said Little.

"And I'm not saying the law necessarily covers every single episode of the sort that have been covered by these stories but I think his issue was that he had a sense of physical fear and was feeling threatened by what was happening and if he felt that, then that comes close to criminal activity in the nature of assault or threatening behaviour and that is covered by existing criminal legislation."

hooded criminal stalking in the shadows of a dark street alley alleyway

Photo: 123RF

But The Coalition for the Safety of Women and Children say current legislation does not adequately protect victims when it comes to stalking.

Agencies in the Coalition are calling on a separate Stalker legislation to be established and they say New Zealand is falling well behind other countries who do have Stalker legislation in place.

They point to the Strangulation Offence which came into force in New Zealand in 2018 as an effective change in legislation specifically targeting an act. 

Similarly to the act of strangulation, the 2019 Women’s Refuge Study on stalking revealed a strong association between the act of stalking and homicide.

Advocates say a separate legislation targeting stalker behaviour would save lives and is urgently needed.

Little said while he hadn’t looked at Stalker legislation in other countries, he would be interested to compare whether or not aspects of those laws were already being covered in other pieces of criminal legislation in New Zealand.

“When it is strangers, I can accept that it is difficult to squeeze every particular activity or in fact situation into the range of laws that we have at the moment. But I think there's a lot on our statute book that covers a lot of the activity that has been complained about,” he said.

“I’d have to understand that if it was just a question of language in using the term ‘stalking’ as opposed to defining the behaviours and given that the Domestic Violence legislation, which includes the strangulation offence now, also includes other activities - the psychological and emotional activity that constitutes harassment, I'd have to know that that is different to what people are talking about when they talk about stalking. 

“I think it might just be a question of understanding whether or not where the law is now, goes far enough, or whether the reference to stalking as a term, encompasses something more than what is currently on our statute books.

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Business journalism Max Chafkin writes about his attempt to reinvent himself as an instagram celebrity Photo: 123rf

Little admitted that a single act of stalking resulting in an immediate criminal offence is not a step New Zealand’s current legislation takes but was willing to review the law if it found victims were not finding adequate protection.

"Of course if there are gaps in the law, yes. I would have a moral duty to do the work with officials to close that gap,” said Little.

“I want it to be clear that the current law - and admittedly there are different bits of law and different statutes, and that may be part of the problem too is that we're having different crimes defined in different statutes -  it can be a little confusing, possibly for the frontline police officer.

“Some sort of consolidation might be an appropriate act to take. But I'd want to be sure that the law that we've got, if it doesn't cover activity that is causing offence and is causing harm and causing people to be threatened without a remedy, then I'd want to be sure that we're covering off that gap.”

After hearing that one of the victims who spoke to First Up was told by the office of the Privacy Commissioner that there was nothing in the Act that could stop her neighbour from pointing security cameras into her home, Little said it was another gap in legislation he would want to review.

"I'd be wanting to know why it isn't covered by the privacy act. The idea that you have cameras beamed inside your house and can record your movements inside your house just seems to be an extraordinary invasion into someone's privacy and that should not be allowed,” he said.

“And if our law does not prevent that from happening, then there is a gap in the law and we should do something about that.

“I feel an incredible sense of disappointment that [victims] have not got a satisfactory result from their approach to authorities and I’m deeply surprised that they could not find a response to that.

“It's incumbent on us to try and find that in future cases people are not left in that situation again.”