As Women’s Aid launches its new report on domestic abuse and the Irish criminal justice system, Ivana Bacik writes how despite recent positive legal reforms to the law on domestic and gender-based violence there continues to be serious issues in the system that need to be addressed immediately
THE law on domestic and gender-based violence generally has changed significantly in recent years, largely because of the courageous women who have spoken out about their experiences as victims and survivors and the advocacy by the groups and frontline workers supporting them.
As a result of this advocacy, some very positive legal changes have recently been introduced. These new laws have provided for improvements in court processes and treatment of victims.
But despite these welcome reforms, we know that there remain low reporting rates, high attrition levels and low conviction rates in cases of gender-based violence, including domestic violence and sexual abuse.
The limited findings presented from the Women’s Aid Sentencing Watch report confirm that it is impossible to establish even the most basic information about the numbers of domestic violence-related cases before the criminal courts, or about any patterns in sentencing practice.
Our appalling lack of data in this area has been criticised repeatedly at both national and international level. It is long past time for An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and the Central Statistics Office to reform data collection and recording practices — a strong recommendation from this report which deserves immediate implementation.
It is simply not possible to derive reliable findings on case outcomes from media sources alone. Important recommendations within the Women’s Aid Sentencing Watch report derive, however, from the personal experiences recounted by the brave women who contributed to the consultation process organised by Women’s Aid. These women have provided an invaluable insight into the real impact of the law for them and for their children.
Some serious ongoing problems are clearly evidenced by the women interviewed by Women’s Aid. The most traumatic experiences of the criminal process that they describe have derived, in particular, from the lengthy delays with getting court dates; frequent adjournments or deferrals of cases; the “fragmentation” of the criminal justice system and the lack of adequate communication structures between the criminal courts and the family courts.
Currently, even where victims of domestic violence are eligible for legal protection, they often suffer due to the serious lack of co-ordination between different courts hearing separate applications relating to the same family. Issues of custody and access to children, for example, may be dealt with by a judge who is unaware of parallel domestic violence proceedings.
Of course, a core problem with the criminal law, also highlighted in the experiences of the women interviewed here, is the fact that few acts of domestic violence are isolated events.
The criminal law is generally designed to deal with once-off incidents, and to attribute liability for those isolated events to particular offenders.
It can be difficult to apply it in the context of an ongoing abusive relationship. The deep frustration with the criminal system outlined by many of the women in this report is therefore understandable. Action must be taken to address these ongoing issues, and to reform court processes so that they meet the real needs of the women and children most affected by domestic violence.
Given the right set of facts and a suitable litigant, there may even be potential for legal action to be taken against the State for the failure to provide adequate protections against domestic violence to women and children.
But such litigation alone would not be enough to achieve the fundamental change in social attitudes that is required to really tackle the awful problem of domestic violence.
True change can only be achieved through a combination of legal activism, sharing of experiences, advocacy and campaigning work. In particular, it is important that the many myths about gender-based violence are targeted through such work. These myths continue to abound.
Even the phrase “domestic violence” is problematic — it sounds trivial (“only a domestic”). The phrases “gender-based violence” or “violence in intimate relationships between women and men” may be more accurate — but whichever term is used, this form of violence remains an issue fraught with difficulty in law; and a phenomenon which causes great human misery and suffering still, particularly to women and children.
- Ivana Bacik is the senator for Dublin University and Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Trinity College Dublin.