The Ruddelle case judgment reflects judicial recognition of how women in abusive relationships are caught in social and systemic entrapment, writes Julia Tolmie

Women who use lethal defensive force against their violent partners are a rarity. Most women in abusive relationships, if there is a homicide, will be the ones killed.

However, a small number of intimate partner homicides in New Zealand involve victims who were responding to ongoing threats of violence. Such women must have their defensive force judged by the jury to be reasonable in the circumstances that they thought they faced in order to successfully raise the defence of self-defence. If they are not successful in this they are most likely to be convicted of manslaughter or, less commonly, murder.

This is exactly what happened in the recent case of R v Ruddelle. In this case, Karen Ruddelle realised she was in for another “hiding” and called out to her adult son to come and help her. Instead, her teenage son came to assist. Fearing her partner would direct his violence at her child, she grabbed a knife from the table and stabbed him twice. A majority jury rejected her self-defence case on the basis that her force was defensive but excessive – in other words, not reasonable. However, they convicted her of manslaughter.

Justice Matthew Palmer sentenced Ruddelle to 11 months and two weeks on home detention in August. This is a fair but compassionate outcome. Significantly, it is a sentence that allows a mother to continue to parent her teenage child (a child without another parent), thereby not compounding the multiple traumas that have occurred already in his young life.

What is most interesting about Ruddelle, however, is not the outcome but how it was reached. It is obvious that if we are to apply the criminal law fairly then we need to understand the lives of those we are applying it to. We cannot properly judge what reasonable behaviour in the circumstances is unless we accurately understand those circumstances. If we don’t know about relevant facts and don’t understand the significance of the facts that we do know, then obviously our judgments will be unfair. For this reason, Ruddelle is an important decision and a ground-breaking case.

Significantly in Ruddelle, the outmoded and discredited notion of ‘battered woman syndrome’ was not used to make sense of the facts either at trial or at sentencing. Instead, the court received expert evidence that assisted it in understanding the circumstances of the defendant as a form of social or systemic entrapment.

The entrapment framework reflects up-to-date understanding and allows a full and accurate picture of the operation and harm of intimate partner violence in the defendant’s life. Most significantly, applying such a framework to assess the facts of the case, Justice Palmer refused to limit his consideration of the context of the offending to just the one incident of violence that the defendant was responding to at the time she stabbed the deceased. He said: “It is important not to replicate any previous misconceptions about family violence and to focus on the offending in the context of the relationship, rather than based on only the latest specific incident.”

This is a massive step forward because it acknowledges what has been known by those working in the field for a very long time – intimate partner violence must be addressed as a pattern of harmful behaviour that has a cumulative and compounding effect on the victim, not just as a series of incidents of physical violence.

Battered woman syndrome has long been discredited because it focuses on the victim not the abuse, blaming her for her situation, falsely assuming that leaving the relationship is achievable and a solution to the abuse while failing to reflect the fact that victims of intimate partner violence do proactively resist the abuse and seek help.

The real problem here is that we have not yet developed safety options that always work efficiently or match the operation and harm of intimate partner violence. Furthermore, some of our interventions are in fact incredibly harmful, especially for Māori whānau. Ruddelle, like many victims, was a proactive help-seeker who had over many years repeatedly called the police, engaged with refuge and obtained court orders. Justice Palmer acknowledged this, commenting that “Ms Ruddelle repeatedly sought help against violence in her life but that had led to a short-term response at best and removal of her children at worst. She was not able to protect them.”

But the sentencing judgment in Ruddelle was a masterclass in judicial leadership in other ways as well. We know there is a problem with systemic racism in the New Zealand criminal justice response to Māori; there is no need to look further than the over-incarceration of Māori in prison. Furthermore, research suggests that Māori are filtered disproportionately into, rather than out of, the criminal justice system at every stage in the criminal justice “pipeline” – from arrest to sentencing.

It was therefore heartening to see Justice Palmer calling to account those who responded to Ruddelle as a Māori woman in a less than professional manner, saying he was “disappointed” in the first pre-sentence report, which lacked context or detail and simply recommended incarceration. It is clear that he had taken the trouble to raise concerns about the quality of the report and to insist on better.

Justice Palmer also credited the defendant with her offer to plead guilty to manslaughter, given this was the outcome of going to trial. Most women in New Zealand in these circumstances are charged with murder despite the fact that most are convicted of manslaughter. More than 20 years ago, Judge Lynn Ratushny in Canada called for the Crown to examine its charging practices in these kinds of cases and to charge with manslaughter rather than murder in those instances where manslaughter would be the appropriate outcome.

The problem in Ruddelle appears to have been that the prosecution was operating on outmoded and inaccurate understandings of the nature of intimate partner violence – employing what might be described as a “bad relationship with incidents of violence” analysis of the facts rather than a social entrapment analysis.

Finally, Justice Palmer respectfully acknowledged the humanity of, and paid tribute to, the deceased in Ruddelle, despite his history of using violence. It is important that we do not demonise men who use violence – because if we do then we will fail to recognise destructive behaviours in our own whānau and friend group, expecting to see monsters. We also fail to recognise the aroha and manaakitanga Māori women feel towards their men, recognising that they too have often been victimised and badly let down, and believing they are capable of growth and change given the right circumstances.

Professor Julia Tolmie is from the University of Auckland Law School.

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