Domestic violence cases are being failed by the Irish legal system

Women and children caught in lives of abuse merit a protective criminal process

Inherent in the failings of our legal system is a culture that often treats domestic violence as a nuisance rather than a crime. Photograph: John Gomez/Getty

Inherent in the failings of our legal system is a culture that often treats domestic violence as a nuisance rather than a crime. Photograph: John Gomez/Getty

 

‘The Lawlessness of the Home, a report being published by Safe Ireland today, detailing the experiences of women who seek legal remedies to domestic violence and abuse, is shocking but, sadly, not surprising.

At its heart, this research tells us one overarching, clear, unequivocal and deeply distressing thing. It shows that our legal system at every level is failing women and children who are living with violence and abuse in their homes.

It tells us women are not taken seriously – that their allegations of domestic violence are not fully heard or investigated by gardaí, legal representation or the courts. It tells us that breaches of safety and barring orders go unpunished, that women are silenced in court, that women are told by their legal representatives not to speak in court for fear of annoying the judge or giving the “wrong” impression.

It tells us that high-risk behaviours by perpetrators are being missed by State agencies, are not being heard or are not being included in evidence in Ireland. The seriousness of this cannot be underestimated – there are so many cases where this has led to the escalation of violence.

It tells us the law is applied differently in different courts and parts of the country. It tells us that there is no transparency in the way the legal and justice system works and that discretion and stereotyping are integral to the way in which a women can be viewed and treated.

These are serious allegations. And they are not easy to make, particularly when women and their children seek support and safety through legal and statutory systems, from the Garda Síochána to social workers and the courts every day. These serious allegations are further backed up by the findings in the recently published Garda Inspectorate report.

Lawlessness at home

But these issues have to be laid bare. If they are not, we cannot begin to change the system that is not working and is keeping many women trapped in the lawlessness of their own homes.

This research cannot sit on a shelf to gather dust. It cannot be ignored. It must mark the start of making our legal system work for women and children.

And we know that this is possible.

We have also stated very clearly in our report that there are “pockets of good practice” around Ireland. There are champions for reform in every Irish institution that meets women and children: in An Garda Síochána, in the legal professions, social work, the health service and the courts.

We feel very confident that we now have a unique opportunity to ensure the pockets of good practice become the norm – where women can expect to be heard, can expect their cases to be analysed fully and can expect to be taken seriously.

There are 34 recommendations within the report, all of which should be taken into account if we are to truly transform our legal response to women.

However, there are four recommendations which we feel would have an immediate and life-changing impact for women and children. We can:

nEstablish a civil and criminal law definition of domestic violence which includes coercive control; nIntroduce risk-assessment systems so that risks of violent behaviour are recognised, including review structures for intimate partner homicides;

nIntroduce restrictions on reporting victims’ identity in related criminal proceedings where the victim needs to remain anonymous; and nRemove the existing fee for legal aid for victims of domestic violence.

The legal system is one of the best-funded responses to domestic violence we have in this country but, as our research shows, it often does not understand or respond adequately to the needs of individuals before it. And relying on the legal system to respond to individuals has enabled us, as a society, to believe that something has been done about domestic violence.

We can no longer rely on this illusion.

Inherent in the failings of our legal system is a culture – recognised already in other reports – that often treats domestic violence as a nuisance rather than a crime. This culture is not unique to the legal world.

Complete rethink

As a country, as a society and as communities where women and children are living, we all have to be brave enough to completely rethink how we address domestic violence and how we respond to their needs. Reforming our legal system is a vital first step in this process.

nThe Lawlessness of the Home: Women’s Experience of Seeking Legal Remedies to Domestic Violence and Abuse in the Irish Legal System will be launched today by

Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald.

Sharon O’Halloran is chief executive of Safe Ireland, the national organisation responding to domestic violence

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