2 Jun 2020

Police treated protection request during lockdown as OIA

9:04 am on 2 June 2020

Police have been forced to apologise to a woman after mishandling an information request for an urgent protection order during the lockdown.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Trish* requested a family harm report to support an urgent protection order application against her ex-partner during the nationwide lockdown.

After a week-long delay, she went to the Wellington police station, where she was told her urgent request had been lodged as an Official Information Act request (OIA) that could take 20 days or longer to process.

Police have since admitted this was done in error and apologised.

Trish decided to apply for a protection order after a surprise visit from two police officers during the lockdown.

She has sole custody of her high-needs son and the father was claiming she was restricting access to the child.

Trish told the police this wasn't true; her former partner lived in another city and he'd slapped their son's leg several times during his last visit in late 2019.

She said one officer encouraged her to apply for an urgent protection order and so she did; embarking on what she now describes as an appalling process.

"Why was it so hard? For most people it would have been impossible. I was just lucky I had the situation where I could manage it myself and persist and try and keep my job because I work full-time as well. It's just insane."

Trish applied for the order online at the end of April, requesting the officers' report about her as supporting material for the application.

She received an automated email reply confirming her request but a week on nothing had happened.

Six days later, she drove to the Wellington police station with her son to ask after the police report in person.

She had no idea it had been received as an online OIA request, which can take 20 working days or longer to process.

Wellington Area Commander Dion Bennett initially said Trish's request did not mention it was required for a protection order, adding he was confident it would have been processed immediately if it did.

He has since conceded she did state the nature of the request and it was not processed with urgency as it should have been.

"Police acknowledge that in this situation we did not meet expectations and we apologise to [Trish] for the distress this has caused. Police will learn from this and identify areas of improvement."

Instead, Trish was told her request was still going through the OIA process and as it was a Sunday no one was available to speak to her directly to provide an update.

She returned to the station two days later, where she says a woman behind the public counter asked her why she needed a protection order.

"I said well I object to talking about this in a public place because there were other people waiting and I shouldn't have to explain to a receptionist anyway.

"It's none of her business to decide whether or not my application has merit and therefore I should be given the documentation."

Trish said it was a humiliating experience and to top it off, she was then told the police actually had a burglary report on file.

"I said I've never been burgled in my life, so there'd obviously been some muck up, but she said the trouble is at the moment we only have one person handling all the information requests and they've been inundated."

Trish was one of 1100 people who filed an urgent protection order application during alert level 4.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice show these applications dropped by 37 percent during the lockdown period; fuelling concerns people weren't accessing the help they needed.

Trish said while she was grateful she could persist with her request, she worried many others were not as fortunate.

"We all know what's going to happen in these situations. It's a no brainer that domestic violence will increase so why don't they have some kind of system and process in place.

"I'm just lucky that I had some transport to get into town and am articulate and intelligent and I could argue my case.

"What about all those people who aren't in that situation who are stuck somewhere? What the heck are they going to do?"

'An appalling story'

Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury said Trish's experience was not good enough.

"I think that's a terrible story. I think that's an appalling story and it should not be what anybody experiences when they're seeking a protection order. I don't think it's good enough."

Trish's urgent protection order application has been heard in the Family Court, where a judge found there wasn't enough evidence to grant it.

Instead, her application was put on-notice which means her son's father is served with the order that will automatically come into force if he doesn't contest it.

Trish said her dealings with police were just one step in what's been a long and stressful process.

She doesn't feel hopeful sharing her experience will improve police process for others that come after her.

"It just illustrates how very hollow it is; you hear all these meaningless words from people in authority and working in the system but this just illustrates how hollow it is.

"When the rubber hits the road, these women - and they're not always women either - are stuck in these situations with no way out because the system lets them down."

*The woman's name has been changed to Trish to protect her identity.