Criminal and family courts need to be "speaking to each other" when victims of sexual and domestic violence are involved in parallel cases in both venues, the Justice Minister has said.
Helen McEntee said the Department of Justice would bring together the reports of separate Government working groups – one aimed at improving the justice process for victims and another aimed at reforming the family courts – to ensure this issue was resolved.
The minister was speaking in the Seanad after the Government’s response to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence (DSGBV) during the Covid-19 pandemic was raised by Senator Sharon Keogan.
Ms Keogan said simultaneous involvement in pleadings in the criminal courts and the family courts, as well as child welfare cases before Tusla, were not unusual in families affected by DSGBV – but she said it could “lead to considerable difficulties”.
She said mothers required by Tusla to leave an abusive partner to protect their children are faced in the family courts with parental rights of abusive partners to access their children.
This can supersede the child’s right to safety, she said, retraumatising the child and the mother.
Ms Keogan said convictions of violent abuse by a partner may be deemed irrelevant in a custody or access case as the offence is not against the child.
The senator asked for a “fit-for-purpose joined-up legal and welfare mechanism” to ensure these matters are fully considered in terms of child welfare.
Ms McEntee said civil and criminal proceedings could happen at the same time and that there is “no connection” between the two.
“It’s something we’re very conscious of,” she said.
“It is very difficult, for the very reasons you outlined, and we need to make sure those two elements of the court are speaking to each other.”
She said there was engagement between the implementation of supporting a victim journey group, set up to improve victims’ experiences in the justice system, and the family justice oversight group, to tackle this issue.
Ms Keogan also told the minister there were not enough refuge places and that women and children in dire need were being turned away.
She also raised issues of Garda training and regulation of court-appointed child welfare assessors.
Ms McEntee said all gardaí in the divisional protective service units, which were now in every division in the country, had received their training and that work was underway to ensure all gardaí across the organisation got updated training on DSGBV.
She said Tusla was conducting an audit on accommodation and would identify gaps in terms of refuges.
She said the Department of Justice was working on a model that would see organisations working in the area receive funding on a multi-annual basis.
- Women's Aid: 1800 341 900;
- Men's Aid: 01 5543811;
- Rape Crisis National Helpline: 1800 778 888;
- Sexual Violence Centre Cork: 1800 496 496; stillhere.ie