Last week, our Principal Advisor for Victim Advocacy & Research, Dr Petrina Hargrave, stood before the Justice Select Committee to shed light on a lesser-known form of family harm.
Litigation abuse is essentially a “manifestation of domestic violence in the courtroom”
The Family Violence (Strengthening Legal Protections) Legislation Bill seeks to address litigation abuse, a complex and often overlooked form of coercive control within the courtroom.
Litigation abuse is when the legal system is weaponised against a victim, continuing an abuser’s control through endless and often baseless legal battles. This can lead to immense psychological, financial, and emotional strain on victims.
It may include threats, humiliation, insults, financial, and legal manipulation. Litigation abuse has been described as a “manifestation of domestic violence in the courtroom”.1
Manaaki Tāngata | Victim Support submitted support for the newly introduced bill, which plans to strengthen the court’s powers to shield victims from this type of abuse. It's not just about legal protection; it's about acknowledging and stopping a form of abuse that has long been overlooked.
Dr Hargrave spoke to the Justice Committee: “With 55% of New Zealand women having experienced intimate partner violence – including psychological/emotional abuse – and only 19% of crime reported, we urgently need to remove barriers to engaging in the justice system.”
Imagine the distress of someone who's already a victim of family violence being dragged through continual court proceedings by their abuser.
Having supported over 15,000 victims of family harm in 2023 alone, Manaaki Tāngata | Victim Support has heard numerous accounts of litigation abuse. One family violence victim accrued a legal aid bill of over $128,000 after her ex-partner filed multiple petitions in court.
The victim recalled how the court became the “only way to attack” after their separation, resulting in crippling consequences. She described her “hair falling out and going completely bald for over a year”, posttraumatic stress disorder, and requiring twice-weekly counselling over three years to cope.
“No one should have to fear the judicial system that they grew up believing was there to help them. The judicial system has become a playground for many abusers who use it as their weapon of choice.”
Litigation abuse can also force victims to be in continual contact with their abuser or make concessions to avoid being caught up in the court process. As the victim we supported states, “victims just stay because they are too scared to go through the court process.”
Many judicial officers fail to recognise this form of abuse, which means we must adapt our legal frameworks to better serve these victims. It is time for New Zealand legislation to evolve.
“Put simply,” Dr Hargrave closed with the Justice Committee, “this bill acknowledges that our courts are deliberately being used to perpetuate family violence, so the government has a duty of care to protect victims in the one place they should be safe.”
Without these changes, courtrooms can remain battlegrounds where abusers exert control, prolonging victims' suffering and eroding their faith in in the justice system.
As one victim states: “No one should have to fear the judicial system that they grew up believing was there to help them. The judicial system has become a playground for many abusers who use it as their weapon of choice.”
Take a stand: Join us in raising awareness about litigation abuse by sharing this post on your social media. Together, we can amplify the call for change and justice.
1. Beeman, A. (2022). The need for more states to adopt specific legislation addressing abusive use of litigation in intimate partner violence. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 20(3), 825-860, p 839.
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