Statement by Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan, T.D.

Dáil Éireann on Domestic Violence

Check against Delivery

11.12.19

I very much welcome this opportunity today to discuss with Members this important but profoundly disturbing topic. 

 

Domestic violence is a scourge in our society.  While it is not always immediately visible or spoken about by victims, the fact is that it affects people from all walks of life, in all age groups.

 

Last week my Department was involved in a conference organised by the Irish Observatory on Violence Against Women, which focussed on aspects of the Istanbul Convention.  The Garda Commissioner also addressed this important event where he highlighted the disturbing fact that domestic homicides have outpaced murders in the context of organised crime, although they generate far less coverage and discussion. 

 

I fully agree with his analysis – and that’s why today’s debate is very important.  I think it is fair to say that public awareness of this insidious crime is gradually and at last increasing.  

 

This Government has made a major priority of tackling domestic violence, through a whole multiplicity of actions.   That comprehensive approach is essential as sadly there is no one law or initiative that can eradicate domestic violence from our society.  I would like to now take the opportunity to update the House on some of our initiatives.

 

Indeed I am confident that in the future, this year, 2019 will be recognised as a landmark year in the struggle to prevent domestic violence, to punish perpetrators and to protect and care for victims.  

 

2019 began with the commencement of the Domestic Violence Act on the first of January. This Act brought in wide range of new protections to victims under both the civil and criminal law. The key part of this is the creation of the new offence of Coercive Control.

 

It is also significant that this year Ireland ratified the Istanbul Convention - which I was pleased to announce on International Women’s Day. Ratifying the Convention delivers on a Government commitment and it sends an important message nationally and internationally that Ireland will not tolerate these sort of crimes.

 

2019 has also seen the opening of a significant number of Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSUs) by An Garda Síochána. These Units have specially trained officers responsible for engagement with and interviewing of victims. It is anticipated that there will be a DPSU in each Garda division by the end of Q1 2020.

 

I will return to some of these elements later in my statement.

 

A number of important pieces of research have also been commenced in 2019 in this important and sensitive policy area.   In May, I launched a major independent in-depth expert research study on familicide and domestic homicide reviews.

 

My Department has also internally commissioned and prepared research projects that explore victim’s interactions with the Criminal Justice System - and domestic violence has been a strong feature of this research. This research review focuses on best practices with victims in general, exploring victims’ experiences at each stage of the criminal justice process, namely the initial police contact, investigation, prosecution, trial, sentencing and parole.

 

A focus on studies conducted with victims with specialist needs such as victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence and victims at the intersection has produced very informative data.  All of this research is intrinsic to supporting the development of more evidence-informed policy making. In this context, I want to also acknowledge the valuable contribution of NGOs working in this field.

 

Stepping back, historically it is fair to say that there were serious deficiencies in the way we collectively dealt with domestic violence here in Ireland. 

 

While victims suffered, we as a society too frequently pretended we didn’t see it, we looked the other way. The term ‘behind closed doors’ is regularly used when discussing domestic violence but that can and will no longer be the case.

 

The creation of the First and Second National Strategies on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence represented key milestones and their implementation provides a concrete example of the priority placed on these issues by Government.

 

The bulk of the Strategy’s actions are aimed at changing societal attitudes through awareness raising to help prevent domestic and sexual violence, improving services to victims and holding perpetrators to account- this is being achieved through the implementation of the Actions set out in the Strategy including the enactment of legislation.

The strategy is a living document, which informs the direction that the Government, working in partnership with civil society, is taking to tackle these issues head on.

 

A real highpoint for me in my term to date as Minister for Justice and Equality was signing the Statutory Instrument to commence the Domestic Violence Act 2018.   I strongly believe that this legislation will help to improve the protection afforded by our laws to victims of domestic violence.  The Act puts the needs of victims first and foremost. It does this in a number of ways.

 

First, the creation of the new offence of Coercive Control. The devastating psychological impact controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, humiliation or intimidation on victims is often a defining feature of domestic violence.  We know how damaging this abuse is to victims.  Creating a specific offence of coercive control sends a clear, consistent message that this behaviour in an intimate relationship cannot be tolerated. 

 

I believe that explicitly capturing this in law will help victims to identify the behaviour they are suffering as wrong and encourage them to report it. I hope it will also give serious cause to those who might consider carrying out controlling behaviour – and our criminal justice system will now have the power to deal with them if they do so.

 

Another particularly valuable aspect of the 2018 Act is that an intimate relationship between victim and perpetrator can now be regarded as an aggravating factor on sentencing for a wide range of offences. This sends a message to perpetrators, victims and indeed wider society that we will no longer tolerate the appalling breach of trust committed by one partner against another in perpetrating crimes in an intimate context.

 

The Domestic Violence Act also improves aspects of access to barring orders. Safety orders are now available to persons who are in intimate relationships but who are not cohabiting. The Act also recognises the serious impact of domestic violence on children and the courts will have the option of appointing an expert to assist the court in ascertaining the views of the child.

 

In fact, the Act provides greater supports for all victims in the court process. A victim of domestic abuse now has the possibility of being accompanied to court by a person of their choice to provide support during the hearing. It also provides for evidence by live television link by victims and there will be new restrictions on attendance at criminal court proceedings to protect the victim’s anonymity. 

 

The landmark Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 which transposes the EU Victims Directive is another legislative support for victims of domestic violence. The Act, which was passed into law in November 2017, introduces, for the first time, statutory rights for all victims of crime, including victims of domestic violence. The legislation gives all victims of crime an entitlement to information about the criminal justice system and their case, and very importantly, information on victim service supports, and on the progress of the investigation and any court proceedings as well as the right to an individual assessment of their protection needs and measures to safeguard them from further victimisation and intimidation, if that is necessary.

 

This legislation has been put in place to better protect victims.  But crucially these steps are also accompanied by significant practical changes including in relation to policing.

 

As I’ve said, the Garda Commissioner recently addressed the Irish Observatory on Violence against Women conference and made an important speech on the importance of focusing resources on domestic violence.

 

The Garda Commissioner stated that Gardaí are now responding to 30,000 domestic abuse calls every year. Those figures are stark. And they are shocking and disturbing.  Each one of those calls are made by someone who is experiencing a deeply traumatic incident, reaching out for help at a time of crisis.

 

Significant policing changes means that An Garda Síochána are now in a better position to provide the help those callers need.  The steady rollout of Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSUs) across the State means that specially trained officers will be present in every Garda division and will have responsibility for engagement with and interviewing of victims.  This specialisation will ensure that when victims of domestic and sexual violence present to Gardaí – at perhaps their most vulnerable moment – they are met with professional and expert assistance.

 

Additionally, over 2,700 frontline Gardaí have received training in how to identify and investigate the new offence of coercive control - and this number is also set to increase.

 

As well as this, a domestic violence risk assessment matrix is being rolled out by An Garda Síochána on a phased basis in early in 2020 which will allow Gardaí to identify victims at a high risk of harm and perpetrators at a high risk of committing a domestic violence offence.

 

At the same time, An Garda Síochána is developing policies and procedures to inform the overall policing approach to domestic homicides. 

 

This includes a Domestic Homicide Review Team in the Garda National Protective Services Bureau which is examining a number of domestic homicides of relevance for review.  The purpose of such reviews is to examine what lessons, if any, should be learned and what potential changes to relevant policing policy and procedures should be introduced.

 

The intention here is that this will result in an improved response by An Garda Síochána in the handling of domestic violence or abuse into the future and ultimately reduce the number of domestic related homicides in our society.

 

Separate to this, in May I announced the establishment of an independent, in-depth study that will provide a solid framework for how the State can better support families and local communities who fall victim to familicide. This specialist research, which being led by Norah Gibbons, will look at the provision of supports to families who are victims of familicide.  Secondly, the research will identify international best practice in the conduct of Domestic Homicide Reviews and this will help inform our own approach to the introduction of such reviews here.  The expert study is progressing well and I want to thank all the victims and NGOs who have engaged with Norah and her team to date.

 

This study is due to be completed in May.  It will help us better ensure that victims of familicide are supported in as compassionate and timely way as possible. This will include the families of the victims and local communities who experience the horror of familicide cases in their local areas.

 

And so I return to where I started.  The landscape of domestic abuse in Ireland has finally begun to change and 2019 has been a landmark year in implementing that change.

 

We have greatly improved how we support victims of domestic violence. Many changes have been made to right the wrongs of the past. But the reality is that we will be required to continue to tackle domestic violence on an ongoing basis.  

 

As a Government we are committed to maintaining that focus.

 

This issues can no longer remain ‘behind closed doors’ – domestic violence is a problem that no one should have to face alone.  I hope that the changes to the law and the significant changes made by An Garda Síochána to how they handle these crimes, as I have outlined today, will make victims of domestic violence feel they can rely on our justice system in their greatest time of need.