‘Overstretched legal system’ leaving domestic abuse survivors at risk

‘My four-year-old daughter said “stop daddy, mummy can’t breathe’”

The State’s overstretched legal system and insufficient resources for survivors of domestic abuse are leaving women at risk of further harm even after they leave an abusive partner, Women’s Aid has warned.

Some 28 per cent of women who contacted the charity in 2017 said they continued to be abused by a former partner after separation. Leaving an abuser has become “a game of snakes and ladders” for women due to an “under-resourced” and “over-stretched legal system”, said the charity.

The organisation is calling for the establishment of an Oireachtas committee to examine the barriers faced by victims of domestic abuse and to ensure women have “a safe and quick transition from abuse to freedom”.

Women’s Aid director Margaret Martin also called for more garda training in dealing with cases of domestic violence. “If we do not address the barriers women experience they will be left struggling against the odds. It should not be the roll of the dice of a good guard or a good judge.”


Eve, who prefers not to give her real name to protect her family, lived with an abusive partner for 17 years before she finally sought help for herself and her children.

“During that 17-year relationship I had to attend accident and emergency four times. I had black eyes, split lips, head trauma but I never reported it to the police. I feared what he would do to me, to my family and to himself.”


Eve hid the extensive bruising on her face by taking sick days from work and covering up with make-up. One night her husband arrived home drunk and began shouting at Eve for hanging out with girlfriends he disapproved of. Her husband smashed furniture, plates and glasses before dragging Eve by her hair into the bedroom of their two young children, she says.

“They stood with their backs against the wall frozen. I’ll never forget that fear on their faces. He punched me over and over again. Then he told me he was prepared to do jail time, that I’d ruined his life and he was going to make me pay. He put his knees on my chest and tried to choke me. Suddenly my four-year-old daughter said ‘stop daddy, mummy can’t breathe’.”

Eve eventually reached a phone and called the gardaí who she said took 55 minutes to arrive. Her husband was arrested but due to his psychological state, she says his behaviour was excused by a district court judge. Feeling confused and lost, Eve chose not to press charges. “I wish I had felt protected and supported by the law. He didn’t change his ways. He’s a ticking time bomb.”

Seek permission

Eve cannot apply for a divorce from her husband until October 2018 and must still seek his permission to gain access to support services for their children. “The law does not go far enough to criminalise domestic violence. I am still married to this guy. There are rules that you must be living separately for a time before you can apply for legal separation. The same goes for divorce. We must live in purgatory and wait to move on officially.”

Responding to Eve’s story, Minister of State David Stanton described the behaviour of abusive partners as “barbaric” and admitted his pre-prepared speech “pales into insignificance” after hearing from survivors. Mr Stanton said he would relay the charity’s message to the Minister for Justice and apologised for the lack of support for women and children. “I’m upset and angry by what I’ve heard and I personally will try and address the issues you’ve raised. This shouldn’t be happening in our country in this century.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast