Fears Mediation Bill may force abused into contact with abusers

Women’s Aid says domestically abused must not be exposed to additional dangers

 Domestic abuse: “It is vital for the woman, as well as the children’s safety, that a victim of domestic violence is not put into the situation where she is intimidated by her partner into agreeing to unsafe or unfair arrangements,” says Women’s Aid.

Domestic abuse: “It is vital for the woman, as well as the children’s safety, that a victim of domestic violence is not put into the situation where she is intimidated by her partner into agreeing to unsafe or unfair arrangements,” says Women’s Aid.

 

Women who have been victims of domestic abuse may be pressurised to take part in mediation with their estranged partners if proposed new legislation is passed, Women’s Aid has said.

The charity, which supports women who have been abused, has raised concerns about the Mediation Bill 2017, currently before the Dáil.

The aim of the Bill is to promote mediation as a viable, effective and efficient alternative to court proceedings in civil disputes, to reduce costs, speed up resolutions and relieve the stress involved in court proceedings.

Once it is passed, solicitors will be obliged to advise people in dispute to consider mediation and, where court proceedings are launched, parties will be required to confirm to the court they have considered using mediation.

In family law cases, people will be required to attend an information session on mediation and, after cases have begun, the court may invite the parties to consider mediation.

The legislation also provides for the introduction of codes of practice for mediators.

The Bill explicitly excludes mediation in the case of domestic violence applications, such as barring or safety orders. But people who have been subjected to domestic abuse may be asked to take part in mediation to settle disputes over issues such as custody and access to children.

Post-separation violence

Last year, 26 per cent of the women with whom Women’s Aid worked were being abused by an ex-husband or ex-partner. For 16 per cent, violence began after the separation and 33 per cent experienced violence during a break-up.

Margaret Martin, director of the charity, said women may be put under pressure to enter mediation with men who have abused them and this may put them in danger of further abuse and harassment.

“Women have been verbally abused in mediation, intimidated and in some cases physically assaulted, and the mediators have been assaulted also,” she said.

She said women who speak to them feel under pressure to enter mediation if a judge recommends it, in cases considering issues such as child access, custody or maintenance. But mediation can be used by an abusive partner as a process to delay matters, and this causes a lot of stress for women.

“Sometimes it can be a complete waste of time,” she said.

Mediation is also predicated on the parties having an equal relationship and being able and willing to co-operate with each other.

“It is unrealistic to think that a perpetrator of violence would co-operate with his victim in an honest and open way, or that this process would be able to reverse what may have been years of dominance and control,” Ms Martin said.

‘Charming’ appearance

She said some mediation services are conscious of a history of domestic violence and would screen out such cases, but unless mediators are trained to spot the signs, some domestic abusers can come across as “charming”.

“It is vital for the woman, as well as the children’s safety, that a victim of domestic violence is not put into the situation where she is intimidated by her partner into agreeing to unsafe or unfair arrangements,” she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said mediation is, and will remain, a voluntary process under the Bill, which imposes no obligation on parties to engage in mediation, and there is no compulsion on the parties to do so.

“It will, however, place an obligation on solicitors to advise clients on the benefits of mediation and provide them with information on mediation services,” he said. “This does not arise, however, in the case of proceedings under the Domestic Violence Acts because such proceedings are excluded from the scope of the Bill.”

The Bill is expected to complete its final stages before the Dáil this week after which it will pass to the Seanad for consideration. It may be passed before the summer recess.