The Irish Times view on domestic violence: zero tolerance would be a start

We have a long and sorry history of failing women and children

Members of Women’s Aid outside the Dáil in 2010 calling for stronger legal protections for victims of domestic violence.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Members of Women’s Aid outside the Dáil in 2010 calling for stronger legal protections for victims of domestic violence. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The murder of Ashling Murphy, in daylight and in a public place, horrified us all. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee described it as “every woman’s worst nightmare” and has committed to a zero-tolerance approach in her forthcoming national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Indiscriminate acts of brutality are rare. Painfully common are the living nightmares thousands of women, and often their children, endure daily, in daylight and the dark of night, in the privacy of their homes, at the hands of men they know well.

Though most recent figures relate to 2020 they are stark and bear repeating. Women’s Aid saw a 43 per cent increase in calls for help compared with 2019 – almost 24,900 disclosures of abuse, and nearly 6,000 about child abuse in the context of domestic violence. Gardaí received about 43,500 domestic abuse-related calls – 17 per cent more than in 2019. And as Sarah Benson, chief executive of Women’s Aid, reminds us, these are “only the tip of the iceberg”. Many will never report the abuse, for myriad reasons.

Some turn to the courts for protection. Organisations such as Women’s Aid and Safe Ireland warn the courts are failing too many. They say a majority of victims of domestic violence who have been through the courts do not feel safer or that they got justice.

Figures reported last week provide little reassurance. Fewer than one in five people accused of a domestic violence offence before the Dublin Metropolitan District (DMD) courts in 2019 and 2020 were convicted, with significantly more applications to strike out or withdraw domestic violence proceedings in those years than for other offences.

Measures that would improve women’s experience of the courts include increased funding for court accompaniment workers, an end to delays and repeated adjournments which facilitate abusers pressurising women to drop cases, and the option of remote hearings in all proceedings involving domestic abuse.

Mandatory training for court professionals on the dynamics of domestic abuse, coercive control and how abusers can “weaponise” the courts to perpetuate their abuse is needed too.

The legal system appears to be failing women too often – by not believing them, not listening to them, dismissing them and effectively abandoning them. It would be too easy, however, to blame that system alone. Our courts, in many ways, reflect our society, its values and its behaviour.

We have a long and sorry history of failing women and children. If anything is to come of the appalling events of recent weeks it must be that we all stop and listen to women in abusive relationships, believe and support them, and demand concrete measures in the forthcoming strategy.

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