Ministers may also have to rethink aspects of their much-trumpeted Domestic Violence Bill after a lawyer warned that the courts and supports systems applying the existing laws are so under-resourced women and children would die before getting help.
Minister of state at the Justice Department David Stanton was shocked after coming face to face with victims as Women’s Aid published the latest frightening domestic violence statistics.
Mr Stanton apologised to two victims who gave testimony of their nightmarish abusive relationships and the battles they faced when they asked the law for protection.
He said: “I am upset by what I have heard and angry and I want to say that I am sorry for what has happened. It’s appalling, it’s shocking, it’s barbaric.”
However, he was particularly taken aback when one woman, who spoke anonymously for safety reasons, said she was disgusted by the Government’s high-profile ‘What would you do?’ campaign, which urges members of the public to report domestic violence.
“The angle of imploring the bystander disgusts real victims of domestic violence,” she said.
“What is needed is that money to support women at the frontline, to hold their hand, give them counselling, help their children. That money is wasted. That money was taken from Women’s Aid.”
The TV and poster campaign, which has cost close to a €1m a year since it was launched in 2016, has drawn repeated criticism, with the National Women’s Council of Ireland questioning its value from the start.
Publisher and broadcaster Norah Casey, who endured a violent marriage, challenged the minister to suspend it, saying it is wrong to encourage bystanders to report domestic violence when women who seek help themselves are often ignored by gardaí, left without protection, thrown into a brutal courts system, and made homeless.
“It’s insulting to me,” she said.
Mr Stanton, standing in for Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, said he had listened carefully to what had been said.
“I am going to reflect on it and bring the suggestions back to my senior colleague,” he said.
He referred to the new measures provided for in the Domestic Violence Bill, which aim to give victims easier access to barring orders, employ specialists to carry out risk assessments, allow testimony to be given by video link, and give children a voice in court.
However, family law expert Ursula Regan said: “The legislation reads very well but any legislation is only as good as the systems that support it.”
She said court facilities for family law cases are not acceptable with victims forced to consult solicitors in public places shared by their abusers, delays of many months to get court orders, and long waits for over-worked psychologists to assess children in what amounts to a “box-ticking exercise”.
She said conditions in the country’s largest family law court at Dolphin House in Dublin are not good enough.
“My concern as a practitioner is that the volume of work there is simply going to grind to a halt and it is only a matter of time before there is a very major and tragic incident that is going to happen,” said Ms Regan.
Women’s Aid dealt with 21,451 calls and visits last year, during which 15,833 disclosures of domestic violence were made. In addition, there were 3,552 disclosures of child abuse.
The organisation, which runs the national 24-hour helpline, found that 28% of women contacting them were being abused by a partner they had already separated from, showing that the violence continued even after they ended the relationship.
One in three said that gardaí were unhelpful when they sought help. Women’s Aid director Margaret Martin called for an overhaul of the courts and support systems.