ELAINE LOUGHLIN: Cultural shift needed along with laws to protect women

Take a moment to think of five female friends or relatives close to you. Statistically one of these women will have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse from a male partner, writes Elaine Loughlin

There is no typical domestic violence victim, she is as likely to be the married mother-of-two at the school gate as the young student behind the till in your local supermarket, she is your friend, your neighbour, your doctor, the woman who helps you in the pharmacy, the woman you make eye contact with crossing the road, the woman who sits next to you in the office.

It means that for many women, the place where they should feel safest is instead a violent terrifying place and in some cases the place where they will meet a violent horrific death.

And while the Government has recently introduced positive changes by making coercive control a criminal offence; allowing victims to give evidence via live television link and making it easier to obtain a barring order, these measures will only work if women are aware of them, if the gardaí, judiciary and other frontline staff are trained to enforce them and if perpetrators know the penalties they face.

Domestic abuse and violence festers just under the surface in every community, every town, every parish, every village across the country; it now needs to be confronted.

Nine in 10 women murdered in Ireland are killed by a man known to them, a startling fact contained in the Women’s Aid Femicide Watch 2018 report published before Christmas.

In cases that have been resolved, the report found that more than half of women were murdered by their current or former boyfriend and 61% were killed in their own homes.

This January marked a significant step forward in bringing about a much-needed change of culture when it comes to combating an all-too-prevalent problem.

The new Domestic Violence Act 2018 came into force, which among other enhanced protections, makes coercive control a criminal offence for the first time.

Campaigners have welcomed this new offence which should help to change perceptions that domestic violence only relates to physical abuse and instead can relate to psychological abuse in an intimate relationship that causes fear of violence, or serious alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse impact on a person’s day-to-day activities.

However, this week the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) said their members have not been given the training to allow them to enforce the new laws and protect abused women and their children.

All we are asking is that our members are fully trained on the new legislation so that we can enforce this effectively,” said AGSI general secretary John Jacob.

“Our people are familiar with the new coercive control existence, but we haven’t been given any instructions on how to assess if the offence has been committed so it’s a difficult one for our members to actually implement. Legislation is complex, if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have barristers and solicitors, so all we are asking for is that our people are trained so that we can effectively enforce the legislation.”

It is incredibly difficult and sometimes dangerous for any female victim to go to the authorities, so if the gardaí have not been trained up on the new protections how can any woman have confidence that the risk they take in reporting abuse will be worth it?

It is simply not good enough for the Government to roll out new laws and hope for the best, it requires full commitment and those who will be responsible for enforcing this legislation including the gardaí and the judiciary must receive proper training.

Government commitment must also extend to ensuring that vulnerable women know their rights and know that if they come forward they will be supported.

If women don’t actually know that the criminal offence of coercive control exists how can they ever come forward, asked Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council.

The Government now has a responsibility to publicise the changes, and that must involve a public information campaign, radio, television and other media advertisements and training for frontline staff.

Other positive changes in the law mean that safety orders are available to people who are in intimate relationships but who are not cohabiting; victims of domestic violence are now also able to apply for an emergency barring order, lasting eight working days, where there is an immediate risk of significant harm and the Courts Service now have an obligation to offer victims information on domestic violence support services.

While it is hoped that these extra supports will provide victims with the confidence to come forward, the very infrastructure (garda stations, court buildings and courtrooms) that women find themselves in is often unsuitable, intimidating and ultimately can prevent them from pursuing their case.

When trying to get a barring or safety order, victims must enter a geographic lottery when it comes to facilities.

The Children’s Rights Alliance have highlighted the fact that judges are making decisions in courts around the country about intimate family issues often in the same room as they are sentencing violent criminals.

They say specialised family court systems are commonplace across Europe and in other common law jurisdictions and must be put in place here.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has previously indicated that he is working towards making family law a separate strand of the court, meaning dedicated judges would be appointed to solely handle this area, but this has yet to be implemented.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan

While most district courts now designate a specific day to hear family law cases, in larger courts other civil cases are heard down the corridor at the same time and a number of older courthouses are still are lacking basic facilities such as dedicated waiting areas to provide privacy.

In Dublin, Dolphin House, a former hotel, is used for family law cases, and while this functions as a dedicated family court the building itself is old, cramped and unsuitable despite attempts at renovation.

The promise of a 22-court purpose built Family Law and Children’s Court complex on the nearby Hammond Lane site remains little more than a promise, with no funding allocated to get the project out of the ground.

If a victim decided to pursue criminal charges, for example assault or the new charge of coercive control, she will be lumped in with all the other criminal cases being heard that day.

The entire process is physically and mentally draining.

Campaigners are now beyond disillusioned that the Istanbul Convention, which made significant strides towards addressing gender-based violence, has yet to be ratified by Ireland, eight years after its adoption.

While the new laws are a step in the right direction a massive cultural shift is urgently needed to encourage women to seek help, to provide them with the confidence to report violence and abuse and to reduce the number of women being murdered by men they know.


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