26 August 1999
Law review will make wives tellBy Angela Gregory
New Zealand Herald
Women abused by their husbands could be compelled to give evidence against them in court if the Government acts on a Law Commission recommendation.
Under present law, husbands and wives cannot be forced to give evidence against each other.
But a change to this law is one of the recommendations in the commission's report on the laws of evidence.
Ten years in the making, the report and a proposed code to replace the Evidence Act and case law were presented yesterday to the Minister of Justice, Tony Ryall.
Law Commissioner Judge Margaret Lee said recommending that wives be compelled to testify against their husbands had been difficult.
Although women still living with abusive husbands could endanger themselves by testifying, she said, the alternative was to allow a situation where husbands felt they could beat their wives with impunity.
While spouses cannot now be forced to give evidence against each other, de facto spouses can.
The commission had considered extending the right of refusing to testify to other relationships but had found the boundaries difficult to establish.
The president of the Law Commission, Justice Baragwanath, said it was not practical to apply the rule to the large number of New Zealanders in de facto relationships, and protecting an attacker might be undesirable.
Other proposed law changes would:
- Permit hearsay evidence (where witnesses tell what others told them) in all but exceptional circumstances.
- Allow a wide definition of who is a minister of religion when protecting confidences such as confessions.
Changes to the code would:
Give judges some control over cross-examination, including that which may be culturally offensive. The commission says the question-and-answer format is not the way Maori traditionally resolve disputes and cross-examination of kaumatua could insult their mana.
- Do away with competence tests for child witnesses.
- Increase the types of formal identification police can rely on where fair procedures are used.
Judge Lee said the code aimed to clarify and coordinate the law, which was often inconsistent.