State's response to domestic and sexual violence to be overseen by new agency

Sexual and gender-based offences also to fall under remit of proposed new statutory body

A new statutory agency will be established to oversee the State’s response to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, under plans to be brought to Cabinet on Tuesday.

It follows the completion of a report by Tusla into the provision of accommodation for victims of domestic violence, which highlights gaps in geographic coverage for refuge spaces and concludes there are not enough spaces to meet the needs of the population.

The unpublished report, which is due to be brought to Cabinet by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee in advance of its publication this week, will also list priority areas where extra services are needed. It also recommends the urgent provision of another 50-60 refuge spaces.

While the report does not recommend the establishment of a new agency, Ms McEntee will brief Cabinet on a plan to begin a short public and stakeholder consultation on a third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender based violence (DSGBV).

Once the strategy has been completed – likely during the spring – Ms McEntee will present it to Government and seek further approval for the establishment of the new statutory agency. The new body will need legislation passed to support it, and in the interim, oversight of the area will pass from the Department of Children to the Department of Justice. The transfer of those responsibilities will be governed by a memorandum of understanding between the two departments.

Refuge space

It is expected that it will take between 18 and 24 months to put the new agency on a statutory footing. The programme for Government commits the Coalition to implement a plan for future refuge space on the publication of the review.

The move to establish a new agency, which comes in the wake of heightened public attention on the issue of gender-based violence following the killing of Ashling Murphy in January, was described by one source as a “major departure”. Ms McEntee has made tackling the issue one of her chief aims during her time in the justice brief.

Functions of the new agency, while yet to be fully determined, will include the delivery of services to victims of DSGBV, as well as providing helplines and other support, coordinating government action, and gathering data to inform future policy and awareness campaigns. The new agency will answer to the Minister for Justice and follow policy direction they set.

Speaking last month, Ms McEntee said the number of prosecutions for domestic or sexual violence is “just too low at the moment”.

“One of the big problems is we don’t have enough victims coming forward. And they don’t come forward in a lot of instances because they’re afraid, they don’t think they’ll be listened to, they don’t think the criminal justice system is there to support them, and it’s really difficult to go through all of that process.”

McEntee added that the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in some people being “trapped in a nightmare” due to domestic or gender-based violence.