Gardaí, solicitors, and judges are guilty of a “hidden bias” when it comes to dealing with victims of domestic violence, a seminar has heard.
Solicitor Simone George, who carried out research for Safe Ireland, said women were often unwittingly blamed for their situation by authority figures from whom they sought help.
She said she had recognised the same bias in herself while visiting refuge centres around Ireland interviewing women for her study.
“I spotted plastic boxes on top of a wardrobe with different labels on them,” said Ms George. “One was labelled shoes and I could see runners and sandals inside.
“I thought: ‘Why would they need shoes?’ If I was one of these women, I would have stopped to put my shoes on. I would have planned my escape, with some money put by and a family member to go to.
“I never once thought about the man who had forced a woman to run barefoot across a cold car park with a child in her arms and knock on this door for help.”
Ms George said she found it uncomfortable to discover that she had unconsciously carried such biases into her work, but said it was vital they be confronted at every level of the justice system.
Her report, ‘The Lawlessness of the Home’, chronicles women’s experiences of the courts and law when seeking protection from domestic violence, finding they were repeatedly failed.
Common experiences include being told, while trying to report an incident, that no law was broken if the woman did not already have a safety order against her partner; of being threatened that if she did not sort out the situation, her children would be taken into care; and of never seeing the perpetrator jailed for their crimes.
“One man was put in jail for a month for non-payment of a parking fine but got nothing for five breaches of a barring order,” Ms George said.
“We need to get out of denial, get uncomfortable, get to know our biases, and then work to counteract them.”
The publication of the study comes just months after a damning Garda Inspectorate report which found that, in 11,000 domestic violence calls examined, there were just 287 arrests, and that domestic violence incidents were often regarded as a nuisance rather than a crime.
Retired Supreme Court judge and chair of the Law Reform Commission, Catherine McGuinness, agreed there were failings in the system, ranging from judges not listening to the women before them to lack of sufficient resources to hear cases properly.
Sinead Lucey of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission said that, under the Constitution, the State had a duty to defend the life, privacy, and bodily integrity of every citizen, but it often failed to do so in cases of domestic violence.
“It is a form of State discrimination against women,” she said.
Sharon O’Halloran, the chief executive of Safe Ireland, said she hopes the report, which has been sent to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, would help inform improvements the minister has pledged to make in the area of family courts and protections for women suffering domestic violence.
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