Domestic violence charges double but few result in convictions

Courts Service data reveals ‘failure in supporting women who report abuse’

Prosecuting gardaí are sometimes unaware of the precise legal proofs required. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Prosecuting gardaí are sometimes unaware of the precise legal proofs required. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

The number of domestic violence charges before the District Courts here almost doubled between 2019 and 2020 – but most prosecutions for those offences were struck out, withdrawn or dismissed. Only a minority resulted in convictions, data from the Courts Service has revealed.

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor said she was not surprised by the increased number of charges under section 33 of the Domestic Violence Act 2018 for a number of reasons, including the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the low number of prosecutions which proceeded “shows a real failing in terms of supporting women who come forward to report abuse”, Ms O’Connor said.

“There is a pressing need for wrap-around supports for complainants from the outset, including legal, psychological and refuge supports.”

According to the Courts Service data, seen by the Irish Times, 1,394 charges were prosecuted in the District Courts here in 2019 in relation to 973 accused people for offences under section 33 of the 2018 Act.

In 2020, the number of charges almost doubled to 2,763 in respect of 1,829 accused.

Barring orders

Section 33 relates to breaches of safety and protection orders, interim barring, barring and emergency barring orders. The offences may only be prosecuted summarily and the penalty includes a maximum custodial sentence of 12 months’ imprisonment.

Barrister Emer Ní Chúagáin, who represents defendants in section 33 prosecutions, analysed data concerning such prosecutions in the Dublin Metropolitan District (DMD) courts in 2019 and 2020.

In 2019, there were 428 charges before the DMD courts involving 296 persons. In 2020, there were 968 section 33 charges against 644 persons.

Ms Ní Chúagáin found the data showed 82 per cent of the DMD cases resulted in no conviction.

The average percentage of proceedings nationally for all types of offences over the same period which resulted in no conviction was 34 per cent, she pointed out.

In 2019, some 550 cases – more than half of the 973 section 33 prosecutions before the District Courts outside the DMD area – were also struck out, withdrawn or dismissed.

In 2020, the amount which did not proceed or were dismissed rose to more than two-thirds.

Strike out

Of 1,802 of the section 33 orders made that year, representing almost twice the 2019 number of orders, about 1,275 were strike out, withdrawal and dismissal orders. Almost 120 imprisonment orders were made and more than 160 orders concerned fully suspended prison terms.

“There are many reasons why people choose not to carry on with a section 33 complaint,” Ms Ní Chúagáin said. Those included the nature of the relationship between the applicant and defendant and views of some applicants – as set out in the 2019 “Unheard and Uncounted” report compiled by Women’s Aid – that court proceedings would not improve their situation.

Some evidential difficulties have also arisen in relation to making out a prima facie case for some section 33 prosecutions, she said.

Gardaí often choose to prosecute the cases themselves instead of instructing a solicitor from the DPP’s office, she noted. Prosecuting gardaí are sometimes unaware of the precise legal proofs required and information on the Garda website concerning proving the existence of an order appeared to be inaccurate and/or incomplete, she added.

Her experience and that of other practitioners in such litigation is that such procedural failures have led to cases being struck out or dismissed, she said.

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