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Joint Committee on Gender Equality debate -
Thursday, 31 Mar 2022

Recommendations of Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality: Discussion (Resumed)

Today's meeting will be in two sessions. For the first, we will have an engagement in public with representatives of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, and Women's Aid to discuss the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality regarding domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. When the public session has concluded, we will go into private session to deal with committee business.

I welcome our stakeholders to the first session and we are very appreciative of their time and commitment for coming before the committee and providing us with opening statements and submissions. First, I welcome Ms Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, who is joining us remotely. I welcome Ms Shirley Scott, policy manager with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and I thank her for joining us. I also thank Dr. Clíona Saidléar, executive director with Rape Crisis Network Ireland, and Ms Sarah Benson, CEO of Women's Aid for coming in. They are very welcome and we look forward to hearing from them.

Before we begin, I draw our guests’ attention to an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Participants in the committee meeting who are in locations outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating from within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which participation is covered by the absolute privilege.

I will call each group to make their opening statements before opening the floor to members for questions and answers. I do not know if the witnesses have an order they would like to follow or if they are happy to for us to proceed in the order I outlined earlier, that is, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, then Rape Crisis Network, followed by Women's Aid. Is that okay? Ms Scott will commence by giving the opening statement on behalf of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Ms Blackwell is joining us remotely.

Ms Shirley Scott

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is grateful to the Chair and members of the committee for their invitation to discuss the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly regarding domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, specifically recommendations Nos. 37 to 41. Although domestic, sexual and gender-based violence was not initially included in the Oireachtas resolution, once it was given due consideration the assembly, through its recommendations, conveyed why DSGBV is a gender equality issue.

In the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre we aim to prevent the harm and heal the trauma of all forms of sexual violence. We provide services, including running the national 24-hour helpline, one-to-one therapeutic counselling and support for victim-survivors; accompaniment to those attending sexual assault treatment units, Garda stations and court; and education, training and advice to a wide range of people. In addition, we use our expertise and experience to provide reports, analysis and policy proposals to those tasked with action on behalf of victim-survivors of sexual violence. Through our work in the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre we see first-hand the lifelong consequences of the trauma and harm caused by sexual violence of all kinds. These serious consequences negatively impact health, family, relationships, social well-being, education and work.

In 2020, as in previous years, about 80% of those who contacted the national 24-hour helpline were women and about 90% of those who availed of our therapeutic services were women. While sexual violence is no respecter of gender and while the power imbalance in relationships can impact on all genders, the impact of sexual violence on women as a gender is disproportionate to their representation in the population.

I turn our attention to the assembly’s specific recommendations. In response to recommendation No. 37, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre welcomes the recent announcement by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, of the establishment of a new statutory agency to oversee the implementation of the Government’s approach to tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. To achieve this, the governing legislation of the new agency must have sufficient reach and power to ensure an integrated cross-departmental response will be adopted. We are still some 12 to 18 months away from that agency taking charge. In the years it will take the new domestic, sexual and gender-based violence agency to be built, an ad hoc agency should be established to ensure there is no risk of sidelining the work in this sector.

In regard to recommendation No. 38, we agree it is essential to promote awareness through campaigns and education, and to ensure the public is fully informed of the various forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Istanbul Convention obliges governments to promote and conduct awareness-raising campaigns in conjunction with civil society organisations. Awareness, prevention and education campaigns aimed at eliminating the tolerance of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in society must be both inclusive and accessible by all. The real consent study, commissioned by Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, is the first national study of its kind to examine attitudes to and an understanding of sexual consent in Ireland across all adult age groups. A collaborative campaign now under way in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is grounded in equality and will lead to a deeper understanding of consent, the impact of gender inequality on sexual violence, and the impact of sexual violence on survivors and their communities.

In regard to recommendation No. 39, the assembly identified five specific areas in which to support justice for victim-survivors. In respect of the review and reform of the courts system, the credibility and reputation of the complainant in sexual offences cases is regularly the main focus of the defence of an accused person. Thus, harmful stereotypes about how a person looked or dressed can influence how an investigation and trial proceeds. This in turn means that victim-survivors of sexual violence may be reluctant to access appropriate remedies in our legal and justice system. It is vital that legal professionals, including the Judiciary, working within sexual offence trials receive appropriate and ongoing training on best practice in the treatment of victim-survivors.

Regarding the development of guidelines and specialist training for judges and lawyers, issues surrounding the disclosure of victim-survivors’ counselling records is now a feature of many sexual offence trials and only sexual offence trials. In the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, a regime to regulate disclosure of counselling records was introduced for the first time. However, many victim-survivors waive the application of this scheme and permit disclosure of their counselling records without going through the process. This waiver provision has significantly undermined the potential of the new regime for disclosure of counselling records to protect victim-survivors from being questioned about private matters within their counselling notes. The recommendations put forward by the assembly in regard to excluding counselling records in cases is one with which we in the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre are firmly in agreement.

In 2009, research was undertaken on behalf of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, which was based on an analysis of 40 rape cases tried in the Central Criminal Court between 2003 and 2009. The study showed that judges granted defence application to introduce evidence about the sexual history of rape victims pursuant to section 3 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 very frequently, despite the highly prejudicial nature of the reasons being offered by the defence. One commonly used defence argument was that the victim-survivor was promiscuous. This sort of argument, unfortunately, strengthens myths about rape and has the potential to undermine the victim-survivor's evidence in court. Such unnecessarily aggressive cross-examination and the introduction of evidence of victim-survivor's sexual history, results in an unduly traumatic court experience for victims. The trial judges who preside over sexual offence trials and the legal professionals who prosecute and defend these cases play a vital role in ensuring fair treatment of victim-survivors while they give their testimony. Thus, it is vital that any judge or legal professional working within these trials have received appropriate training on key concepts such as, but not limited to, consent, rape myths, and unconscious bias.

Regarding the introduction of tougher sentences, one of the things that victim-survivors want to know when they engage in the criminal justice process is what the outcome is likely to be. They will of course know that the defendant may be acquitted or convicted. However, in the absence of sentencing guidelines and a sentencing database, it is hard for them to know the consequences of a conviction. Report 1 of the sentencing guidelines and information committee of the Judicial Council of Ireland states that sentencing data in Ireland still has profound limitations. The sentencing database known as the Irish Sentencing Information System, ISIS, needs to be reinstated and resourced.

No one size fits all in regard to specialised confidential healthcare and other support services, but our experience as a rape crisis centre of more than 40 years highlights that decent, proper services must be conceived in a victim-survivor-centred way so that those delivering the services are trained and understand the emotional, traumatic impact of sexual assault and harassment, preferably in specialist services where they do not have to keep reporting and reliving the sexual assault again and again. This is particularly true for children and especially vulnerable people. In addition, services must be available in a timely way, be that healthcare or counselling within a short timeframe or getting a case to court within a reasonable timeframe.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, along with member organisation of the Victims' Rights Alliance, VRA, has long been lobbying for the establishment of a victim-survivors' commissioner who is dedicated to protecting and upholding the rights of victims. The appointment of a dedicated commissioner for victim-survivors of crime would ensure their voices and experiences were at the forefront of decision-making, in addition to proactively shaping a balanced and fair criminal justice system.

In response to recommendation 40, we must also consider the need for shelters and accommodation for victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Trafficked women recovering from sexual exploitation need safe and appropriate shelter and accommodation that recognises and treats them as victims of human trafficking and victims of violence against women.

Through its comprehensive recommendations, the assembly has highlighted how much remains to be done, but it also offers a clear pathway for achieving a much more equitable society, including one that is free from gender-based violence. The words used by the assembly in its open letter to the Oireachtas are striking and very clear:

There is no place in our society for gender-based violence. We support the aspiration of the Istanbul Convention to create a Europe free from violence against women and all forms of domestic violence. We want our Government to work actively towards this goal.

I thank Ms Scott very much indeed. I call Dr. Saidléar to make her statement on behalf of Rape Crisis Network Ireland. We will do questions and answers at the of the presentations.

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I also thank the Deputies and Senators. I am delighted to be here on behalf of Rape Crisis Network Ireland. We endorse almost everything that Ms Scott has just spoken about in detail. I do not propose to repeat what she said. I want to focus on what is important and additional about looking at domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, through the lens of gender equality in particular because, for once, it is quite a busy landscape. The national strategy is imminent. The audit to which the Government committed has been conducted and is being woven into the national strategy and there are significant changes coming. In sexual violence terms, we also have the public outcry around the Belfast rape trial. We have the O'Malley report and Supporting a Victim's Journey and a significant number of other undertakings are in motion.

What is it about gender equality and what is the reason that the citizens' assembly focused in on this issue? We should not take it for granted that we are here today. We were not on the agenda for the assembly to begin with. That was a hard-fought conversation to add DSGBV on to the agenda of the assembly. That linkage between gender inequality and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is not something we should take for granted. That was an argument that was made and that was won, but it is one that we can lose again. We are very grateful to be here today, and we are very grateful for the attention that the citizens paid to this issue in their deliberations. The reason I say it is important is that for us, and it comes through in all of the submissions that the DSGBV organisations made, we all understand that this type of violence is both cause and effect of gender inequality. It is impossible to talk about it, address it and to mitigate against gender inequality unless we talk about the violence that supports it. That violence is primarily in the area of domestic and sexual violence. That is why that focus is critical, because it gets that prevention and the long-term prevention and if we are not connecting those two, we are not connecting the dots.

We are also doing a piece of incrementalism without looking at structures. In terms of gender inequality, that big structural cultural change needs to happen for the long-term sustainable changes that we are all looking for here. The first place we go to when we talk about that sort of cultural change in terms of gender inequality and DSGBV is our culture and society, which brings us to focus in on children and the largest institution we have engaged in the reproduction of our culture, if one likes, which is our education system, as it gets loaded with this task over and over again. That is the location where we have that capacity. The citizens' assembly made a number of recommendations regarding our education system and the curriculum and what is happening in the system. We endorse those but we also add the political choices that are made because this is a space of activity as well. A new curriculum is being written as we speak. That has been a long journey, but we will see the new curriculum imminently. There are a number of things that we are concerned about and we must pay attention to them. What I mean is that it requires us to stay actively engaged and actively attentive to what is happening, for example, in informing the curriculum within schools and how that is meant to create the change we are looking for in gender equality.

One of the areas that needs attention in the curriculum is where we lose the aspects that are about the structure of how sexual violence is the violence that supports gender equality. What I mean by that is sometimes we end up not talking about issues such as sexual exploitation, pornography, prostitution and we need to add to the list today. We have rehearsed the list a few times and we need to add to it the normalisation of violence and begin to talk about it, in particular men's violence against women in normal sexual activity where sexual violence is now a function of sexual pleasure and that having become normalised in our culture in how we understand sexual violence.

Unless we are talking about those aspects of the structure of misogyny, we will not be dealing with gender equality in our curriculum. For much of our curriculum, many important, powerful tools have been developed that focus on individuals' self-development. While these are incredibly important and progress should be made on them, we should also pay attention to when structure and misogyny fall off the table and when we essentially move the labour of the prevention of sexual violence on to individuals, particularly individual children, essentially recycling the cultural message that we have given people the tools and that they should now go out and not get raped. That is essentially the cycle we will be repeating if we do not talk about gender equality as a structure of violence.

I believe I have exceeded my time.

It has been a great intervention. I thank Dr. Saidléar. We will come back to the points she raised during questions and answers. I call Ms Benson to make her opening statement on behalf of Women's Aid.

Ms Sarah Benson

I am delighted to represent Women's Aid today. Women's Aid is a national feminist organisation that has been working to prevent and address the impact of domestic violence and abuse in Ireland since 1974. We do this by advocating, influencing, training and campaigning for effective responses to reduce the scale and impact of domestic abuse on women and children in Ireland, and also by providing high-quality, specialised, integrated support services. Women's Aid commends the establishment of the gender equality committee to consider the important recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly, particularly those on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and to put forward proposals for implementation.

The link between gender-based violence and gender inequality has been clearly established, although I fully accept and endorse what my colleague from Rape Crisis Network Ireland said with respect to the need to be vigilant in this regard. The UN states violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality and discrimination. It is clear to Women's Aid that for women and girls to enjoy equal opportunities and full participation at all levels of society, they must first be able to live violence-free lives.

Gender-based violence takes many forms, including domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking and harassment, female genital mutilation, trafficking, prostitution, so-called honour crimes, child marriage, forced marriage, and violence in conflict. Given our remit, I will focus on intimate partner violence today and, in particular, recommendations 38, 39 and 40. However, I fully endorse the statements just made by my colleagues in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

With respect to recommendation 38, Women's Aid appreciates that the draft third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence includes important actions on healthy relationships and education at all formal educational levels, as suggested in recommendation 27 of the Citizens' Assembly, as well as actions on delivering awareness-raising and prevention campaigns on gender-based violence for the general public. We believe that, as per recommendation 38, specific prevention campaigns targeting young people should also be carried out. These should be based on research and collaboration with young people to make them relevant to them and hopefully more effective than general campaigns.

Any awareness, prevention and education campaigns mentioned in this recommendation should include a specific focus on young people's dating relationships and be informed by the social context of gender inequalities and negative gendered stereotypes, which have to be redressed to effectively combat the gendered nature of much dating abuse itself. The careful crafting of campaigns to prevent gender-based violence in young people's relationships will also contribute to accelerated gender equality among younger generations.

Intimate partner violence is often publicly framed as an issue for established married or cohabiting couples, or as an issue that does not really impact very much on young people and their dating or intimate relationships. However, a recent WHO global prevalence review has found that intimate partner violence starts early, with 24% of women aged between 15 and 19 years having already experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner. Women's Aid has been active on this issue for several years.

Too Into You is a national public awareness campaign aimed, since 2011, at raising awareness of intimate relationship abuse against young women aged between 18 and 25. As part of this work, we have commissioned two national research studies with young people over the last two years. What we have found in this research is extremely troubling. One in five young women, compared with one in 11 young men, has suffered intimate relationship abuse by a male partner. Of the young women who had suffered abuse, 50% had been targeted through online abuse, 75% had been subjected to sexual coercion by a male partner, and one in three had never spoken to anyone about the abuse suffered. A particular concern is that 50% of the young women affected were abused by a male partner or ex-partner when under the age of 18. Unfortunately, very little has been done in Ireland to date to understand and address dating violence in this young age cohort.

In our 2021 research report, we identified the need for more work to be done with young people on their awareness and understanding of intimate relationship abuse, as well as on how to be an ally and support to peers. We need to raise awareness and challenge and disrupt abusive behaviour early before it becomes acceptable and normalised for both victims and perpetrators alike in relationships. We must support young people's desire to support their friends who experience abuse and give them the knowledge and confidence to do so safely and effectively. We have to support all young people, particularly young men, with knowledge and tools to foster healthy egalitarian behaviours in friendships and intimate relationships, and enhance their abilities to initiate positive, respectful relationships with healthy mutual intimacy.

Women's Aid strongly agrees with recommendation 39, on supporting justice for victims and survivors, and all the five actions outlined. In our experience, access to justice for victims of domestic abuse, including coercive control, continues to be problematic, both in the family courts and criminal courts. Article 31 of the Istanbul Convention requires that domestic abuse be taken into account when determining custody and access, and that these arrangements be safe for children and the non-abusive parent. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in Ireland.

The Government is currently doing important work on family law, including establishing a dedicated family law court, developing the family courts Bill and developing a family justice strategy. Women's Aid believes that in order to be successful, any reform of the family courts must be designed with the safety of victims of domestic violence, including children, at its heart, with the latter actively consulted. We need adequate training for all stakeholders in the family courts, including expert reporters themselves, on the reality and impacts of coercive control, greater regulation, accessibility and transparency of child welfare reports.

There is a concerning disconnect between the family and criminal courts: in cases of domestic violence and child abuse, these courts may deal with the same families but do not work together to protect women and children from an abusive partner or father. There is an urgent need to improve co-ordination and linkages between family courts, criminal courts and child protection, ensuring the voice of the child is heard, improving eligibility for legal aid, and developing models for screening, fast-tracking and risk-assessing domestic abuse and child abuse cases.

There can be an assumption in the family courts that abuse ends with separation, but in many cases the reverse is true. Abuse can continue and even escalate after separation, which is a particularly hazardous time for women and children in the context of domestic abuse and coercive control. We hear of cases in which a history of domestic abuse, including convictions for criminal offences against the mother, is minimised, ignored or dismissed in custody and access proceedings as a separate matter.

In the criminal justice system, unfortunately we also know that this often fails survivors of domestic abuse. Our research in 2019 found that for the majority of women surveyed, the criminal justice system did not provide adequate justice or increase their feelings of safety. Sadly, most of the women interviewed said they would not, or were unsure if they would, go through the process again, including in cases where a conviction was obtained against their partner. There is a need to redesign the court process, without prejudicing the rights of the accused to a fair hearing, to minimise delays and adjournments and put at its centre the victim's safety and recovery.

A review of how the criminal justice system responds to victims of domestic abuse is long overdue. It should account for the need for improved data systems that could give visibility on sentencing levels where the perpetrator is a current or former partner. The work by the Department of Justice in Supporting a Victim's Journey presents a very promising model for victim-centred reform that will also benefit victims of domestic violence and abuse who have suffered sexual abuse by a partner. It must ensure the specific dynamics and broader relationships and stakes that may be in play where the perpetrator is a current or former partner of the victim are accounted for in all criminal cases.

Women’s Aid also supports the establishment of a victims' or survivors' commissioner as an independent advocate and voice for victims and survivors.

On recommendation 40, Women’s Aid welcomes this recommendation, and we are pleased to note that it has been included in the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, with commitments to develop strategic accommodation solutions in conjunction with the recommendations from the Tusla review of emergency accommodation. Additional to overall bed spaces, however, one of the reasons refuges are full, is because there is not enough movement on accommodation. There are challenges with accessing local authority housing and a housing crisis that makes finding a home in the Irish market extremely difficult. We need to do more than build refuges and give victims of domestic violence and abuse the option of remaining safely in their own homes with specialist support. We need to make clear the link between domestic violence and homelessness and to include a medium- and long-term accommodation action specifically for victims of domestic violence and abuse in the national Housing for All strategy.

I will finish by touching very briefly on recommendation 24 which, while not being in the gender-based violence strategy category, is extremely relevant. Domestic abuse and stalking are not confined to the real world but increasingly also happen in the virtual world. Women and girls disproportionately experience severe kinds of cyber-harassment, including cyber-stalking, online sexual harassment and image-based sexual abuse. While image-based sexual abuse has been made illegal in the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act there is still no efficient way to have image-based sexual abuse content removed from the Internet quickly. It is essential that this content is removed quickly before it can go viral and therefore this removal has to happen independently of any criminal proceedings. Women’s Aid has been calling for swift take-down orders, particularly for image-based sexual abuse, as opposed to the protracted mechanisms that are currently proposed to be included in the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. We believe this is necessary as a tool to combat the devastating consequences of this form of gender-based violence.

I would like to thank the committee again for the opportunity to present today on these important matters. I am very happy to take any questions.

I thank our three witnesses and stakeholders. We appreciate their clear and concise presentations to us. We appreciate the benefit of their expertise and their experience on this issue. I acknowledge that we are discussing recommendations 37 to 41 on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. We on this committee have taken the view that the Citizens’ Assembly has provided us with a superb blueprint for achieving gender equality. Our focus as a committee is on how to implement those recommendations. We see ourselves as forming a bridge between the recommendations and their being put into effect. We aim to recommend to Government an action plan to take those into effect. Our questions and our engagement with stakeholders are on that practical basis. We are conscious that members of the Citizens’ Assembly are engaging with us online as well, which we are delighted about. For the information of witnesses, I will also say that we will meet with other stakeholders on these recommendations next week. We will then hear from the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, on 28 April, at our next meeting after Easter. At this point she will have published the next strategy on DSGBV. We will speak with her about how its implementation will take further those recommendations, in particular, 37 to 41. We are grateful to all witnesses also for touching on other recommendations that have a bearing on gender-based violence. We are grateful for putting a clear gender lens on this pervasive issue. As the witnesses have said, it is an issue that has come to the fore particularly with the horrific murder of Ashling Murphy, as well as with other recent events as the witnesses described. We are very grateful to the witnesses again.

I will now ask for questions from members for engagement with the stakeholders. We will then come back to the witnesses for responses.

I thank the witnesses for their time and for their expertise with us this morning. It is greatly appreciated. Does the Chair want to go issue by issue?

The usual way is alright.

I have my questions broken down by the recommendations as I think it is easier to keep it organised in that way.

In relation to recommendation 38, I have to be quite honest that I think the Too Into You campaign was a brilliant initiative. I would like to see it rolled out more intensely in some areas where the need for it has been identified. Ms Benson spoke of integrating the research campaigns that groups such as Women’s Aid have done. Does she think that the third national strategy to combat domestic sexual and gender-based violence contains adequate measures, based on the research that Women’s Aid has done? In other words, is Women’s Aid seeing the research that it has undertaken and published being reflected in the new strategy that is being brought forward? If not, are there other areas that need attention?

I have a question for Women’s Aid on the recommendation. I find this linkage between the family court and the process of ending a relationship that has been abusive really beyond concerning at this point.

Ms Sarah Benson


Family courts should be part of a process that finalises the end of a relationship. It should not be used in any shape or form to further damage or to further traumatise any individual. We have to recognise that the end of a relationship does not signify the end of abuse. I have spoken with individuals who have told me that they have been advised to be extra careful and extra vigilant after the relationship has ended. This is because most perpetrators’ actions will increase at that point. Now that Ireland has ratified the convention and now that there is a legal obligation to uphold its provisions, is it the view of Women’s Aid that further legislation is required to ensure that that abuse is taken into account when determining custody and access? How do we take the Istanbul Convention and implement it into our legal system to ensure that it is not used to re-traumatise, to re-injure or re-damage people?

I have two brief questions about the O'Malley review and to the Judicial Council. Are the witnesses of the opinion that the pace of implementation of the O'Malley review is sufficient? Are there areas that need to be expedited? What engagements have the witnesses had as organisations with the Judicial Council in relation to the shortfalls that exist in the courts at the moment?

Finally, I have one specific question for the representatives of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. They spoke of survivors’ and victims’ counselling records being brought before the court, as well as the waiver. These are very personal records. They are records of meetings where trauma will be disclosed and where harm is being disclosed. The ultimate object of those counselling sessions is healing. Can the Rape Crisis Centre explain the usual outcome for people in court, arising from the decision, in view of the fact that the 2017 Act needs to be amended for the purpose of excluding counselling records from court cases? I ask this because one of the concerns that I have is when people seek counselling it is based on an event that has happened in their life. For that counselling to be as effective as it can be, there must be full and open disclosure in the process. If there is the potential for that to be brought before the court, are we creating a situation whereby those who want to heal and those who are seeking support are less likely to engage in a process, because they know that the information could at future dates be brought before a court? They are thereby being re-traumatised by going to court. As well as this, they are not getting the maximum benefit from the counselling, for fear that it will eventually be brought before a court. It therefore creates a circular system whereby no full healing can take place at the end of it.

Ms Sarah Benson

I will try to be succinct. I thank Deputy Clarke for her comprehensive feedback. These are all very interesting and pertinent questions.

Ms Shirley Scott

We will be here for a day.

With respect to the strategy and how it relates to awareness and targeted awareness initiatives with young people and minors, I acknowledge that it is currently in draft form. We also had the benefit of an additional consultation. We await with particular interest the implementation plan, which will be published alongside it. There is material in there that may be sufficient, although that depends on how it is interpreted in the implementation plan. There are a number of welcome inclusions in this strategy, which had been completely omitted from previous strategies. This is particularly the case for the area of prevention. There is an explicit acknowledgement of looking at the impact of looking at pornography, for example, particularly on young boys. This is extremely welcome.

There is a direct acknowledgement of the need to connect with policies like the anti-bullying strategy, which is currently under review. I am one of several representatives on the steering committee for that. There is the opportunity there to do the kind of fundamental structural work that Dr. Saidléar referred to, regarding identifying a baseline of a gender-unequal society and then looking at it in an intersectional way, where there is additional discrimination, prejudice and vulnerability that may be due to sexuality, gender identity, race or ethnicity. The baseline, however, is the gender-unequal society. Unfortunately, so far, many of our strategies that can directly influence better outcomes for gender equality start with this gender-neutral position. This kind of signposting is valuable because it gives us the mandate to continue to press for recognising, with our eyes open, that this is the society we are now born into and this is the incremental work under way. There is also the commitment with the relationships and sexuality education, RSE.

Therefore, there are tools to work with. There have, however, been missed opportunities concerning looking sensitively and carefully at prevalence data regarding the intersection in this regard. Our research survey of 18 to 25-year-olds added retroactive questions, which told us that of the one-fifth of young women who were abused by the age of 25, that 51% of them had been underage. That process involves interviewing women for whom that is an experience of some years past. The real situation currently, therefore, requires indepth studies and that can dovetail with the likes of the anti-bullying strategy, where there is an urgent need to consider not just the modes of bullying, because there is focus on cyberbullying, etc., but also the content, in respect of who is targeted and what is the underlying focus. Is it sexist, is it sexual harassment or is it racist? There are great opportunities there, which, hopefully, will be followed through.

Regarding the family law courts, recommendation 39 and whether legislation is required, I do not know that legislation is necessarily required, because we already have legislation in this regard that we are not really meeting our obligations on, such as on the voice of the child, for example. The Domestic Violence Act 2018 had guidance to say that where a crime is committed against somebody and the relationship is one where that person is a current or former partner, that should be considered an aggravating and not mitigating factor. Regarding our experience with the courts, research is under way, funded by the Department of Justice, to examine the siloing effect and disconnect between the criminal courts and the family law courts. We must explore if there are ways to resolve that. There is also inconsistency in this context, where matters in criminal proceedings are, in some cases, allowed to be heard in in camera proceedings, but the existence of a safety order in place is not. What is involved here is guidance and structures, and part of addressing that issue would examine whether legislation is required or only procedures and guidance.

We must also look at the issue of the real lack of understanding of what coercive control is. I refer specifically to custody and access. A great body of research shows that if coercive control is being exerted against an adult member of the household, the non-abusing parent, de facto, then that it is also being exerted against children. Often, it is being done to further target and harm the adult, but it is also very damaging and harmful to the children. This point is not well understood, and it should be an assumption that if there is abuse against the mother in that situation, that the children, by virtue of being in that environment, are not witnesses. They are also victims and survivors, and that is not being well understood. Now that we have the legislation on coercive control, it supports a mindset shift to look not at single acts of violence, criminal damage or threats, but at the pattern of such behaviour. Further work remains to be done in this regard.

There was also a question about the Judicial Council. I am pleased to say we have had contact with the council specifically on the understanding of coercive control and how that can show up in the family law courts. We are collaborating with the Judicial Council on supporting an input as part of its mandate to initiate and then invest in peer-to-peer training on how coercive control can show up. I am pleased to note that. I commend the director who has been appointed, Judge Mary Rose Gearty, on her leadership on this endeavour. I understand the Judicial Council is now getting greater resources to drive this initiative forward. I also acknowledge there is a gap here in this regard compared to many other jurisdictions in that we do not have a judicial training college. Even Northern Ireland has such a college, but we do not. Extensive work is being done from a baseline of limited structures to facilitate this initiative, and we are optimistic that there is more work to be done in this regard as well.

I thank Ms Benson, and I should have explained we have a time limit on contributions to ensure everybody can get in.

Ms Sarah Benson

My apologies. I did not know that.

Not at all. We will get to a second round of questions and I am conscious there were other questions that Dr. Saidléar and Ms Scott wish to respond to, but they may wish to do so in the next round. I call Deputy Carroll MacNeill.

I thank the witnesses for being here and for their contributions. How we get this right is a subject of key interest not just to the committee but to the Government and to society more broadly. Returning to what Ms Benson was talking about regarding coercive control in the context of the family law courts, I will give two quick examples from my constituency clinic on Friday to illustrate how much this issue affects people. This speaks to court processes, how they can minimise ongoing coercive control, or at least be aware it is happening, and how we can change that context. The first lady I spoke to in my clinic is separated and has children at home. She cannot get agreement on anything from her ex-partner. I refer to the reality of that situation. She cannot progress to the next stage until her ex-partner has put in his affidavit. It means she cannot get anywhere in accessing therapeutic supports for her children, getting agreement on play therapy, or anything else like that. Therefore, everything Ms Benson is saying about the impact of ongoing abuse on individuals and families is real. It arises as an issue in everybody's constituency clinic, as it was in mine on Friday. One of the first subjects I raised in the Dáil in my maiden speech was the impact of court processes and how they can either contribute to and facilitate ongoing coercive control or how they can try to limit it. I would like to hear the witnesses' views on that aspect.

The other side of this matter is the enforcement of court orders. Crucially, this relates to maintenance. Better proposals have been made regarding a different way to manage this aspect to try to surmount the issue of the enforcement of court orders. I refer as well to the enforcement of court orders on access, which is just as important in respect of children being able to have relationships with both parents, where those are good and positive relationships, as many of them will be.

Specifically, how do we get into the court processes? Is it through the District Court and Circuit Court rules? In the context of the conversations being had with the Judiciary, how can we get to that level of granularity concerning the impact of the timing of the filing of different documents and how that affects everything else, as well as how we can put in place systems that overcome the worst in people, whether they are unwilling to engage or whether the court system allows a case to drift? How can we introduce structures that do not enable that sort of ongoing abuse through simply not co-operating with the rules of the courts as they stand? How can we introduce limits in this regard, especially on time, and how might that contribute to catching this type of behaviour more tightly from courts' perspective?

This question is one for Ms Benson to answer briefly, and then we will go to Dr. Saidléar and Ms Scott.

Ms Sarah Benson

On parental consent, the RCNI can deal with that subject on behalf of several agencies that have concerns in this area. Turning to court orders, regarding safety and protective orders, serious concern is emerging around the lag in this regard and the lack of a clear, defined structure and relationship between the courts and the Garda in respect of serving such orders. A legal precedent is now emerging, which was not there before, where breaches of orders are being challenged if those orders were not served by a Garda. The Garda, however, has no obligation to serve those orders. An action is set out in the strategy to try to resolve this problem. It is urgent and must be attended to.

Concerning other orders, other procedural considerations are under way.

One I would particularly highlight is consideration of the maintenance system. Women's Aid, along with many of our colleagues in the family and child organisations, strongly endorses the establishment of a separate maintenance structure that lifts responsibility out of the courts, makes it less adversarial and takes away from the victim responsibility to pursue maintenance or, where there are breaches of maintenance orders, the obligation to keep going back to court. This has very real-life consequences for applications for means-tested social welfare benefits. I highlight this as something at an advanced stage of review. It would also reduce the number of guardianship cases that often go to court in response to a maintenance application.

This is a very powerful point. I thank Ms Benson.

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

I echo what Ms Benson said. Women's Aid and the Rape Crisis Network Ireland work together with a number of NGOs and we are particularly concerned about how family law courts, in particular private family law courts, intersect with domestic and sexual violence. We are concerned based on what is coming to us with regard to sexual violence but is anecdotal and this is a problem. Committee members have spoken about the issues that come to their clinics. We have a set of anecdotes available to us but we do not have full insight. We do not have good data or evidence coming out of them. This is the first step in how we begin to come up with solutions and answer the questions that have been asked about the specifics we need to put in place. One of the specifics is that we need transparency. Private family law courts are essentially a black box through the in camera rule. There is no reason we cannot have data coming out of such cases, even while we protect the identities and safety of the people involved in the cases, which are incredibly painful. The first issue is that we need more data and evidence. This is something that can be looked at.

In terms of the particulars, something that has been raised is how coercive control plays out. The name of the coalition of NGOs is the Children Living with Domestic and Sexual Violence group. We are looking at issues such as dual consent for a child's access to therapy or services that professionals have indicated would be of benefit to the child, and how this access is blocked in ways that are used in coercive control. This is, of course, incredibly complex because there is a set of assumptions around it.

With regard to solutions, the first step is that we need the evidence. We need more data and evidence. We need to know the patterns because what we have are anecdotes. The charities and NGOs that work with children and families can add in our various lines of sight to begin to understand what is happening between the three systems. There are essentially three systems that are, in part, blind to one another. There is the criminal justice system, the public and private civil law systems and the child protection response. Particularly with regard to sexual violence and disclosures of sexual violence against children, we are very concerned about what happens when an allegation of child sexual abuse in or around the family disappears into private family law and, indeed, how coercive control begins to happen around the particular allegation. These are all very serious issues in terms of gender equality. I do not think we can understand how our system operates gender inequality and discrimination unless we have insight into what is happening in our family law courts.

It is very difficult for a Member of the Oireachtas to ask too many searching questions about the operation of the courts and the administration of justice lest we step over the separation of powers. As Dr. Saidléar has mentioned, partners are in dialogue with the Judicial Council on some of these issues. We all know this and we keep talking about it. We are having the same conversations. We can see it through anecdotes. I can see it through my constituency clinic as people come to me. I know the justice committee will do work on this but how do we get to the point where we are sitting down with judges or family law practitioners and going through the process to find where we can make things tighter, order by order and step by step through the process, to try to minimise or reduce it? We know it is happening. Is this a direct conversation we can have with judges and begin a body of work through that stream? It is not something I can do as Member of the Oireachtas. I would be stepping out of my job very considerably.

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

I echo what Ms Benson has said on the Judicial Council and the work happening there. One of the challenges is that because these three systems are separate and hidden from each other in part, there are assumptions and myths within the professions. The education and intervention happening at present is critical in terms of interrogating the assumptions. Are they based on good evidence? Are they, in fact, helpful or are they myths that are unhelpful? Judges have taken up education from the NGO sector on sexual and domestic violence and on being trauma informed and looking at the issues through a trauma lens.

I am conscious that Ms Scott never got in to respond to Deputy Clarke's question on counselling records. I ask her to address this and then we will move on.

Ms Shirley Scott

Counselling notes are a dilemma that victim-survivors have to engage with. Is it a case that they look for the support and help they need? If they do so and they have engaged with the criminal justice system, how do they reconcile the fact that the notes may very well be sought? The introduction of the scheme to regulate the disclosure of counselling records was recognition of the challenge posed by the type of evidence in counselling records, the trauma it brings up and the upset for the complainant knowing that counselling records may be sought. It is very important that complainants are fully informed and aware of the waiver process. This informed consent process needs to be supported by entitlement to legal advice. My colleague, Ms Blackwell, may wish to speak on this.

Ms Blackwell is indicating and as she has not spoken yet we would love to hear her contribution.

Ms Noeline Blackwell

I will be brief on this but Ms Scott could tell members this is a hobby horse of mine. To be clear, counselling notes are only ever introduced if the defence wants them. Often medical records are brought to court but it is only in sexual offence trials that they are brought in to discredit a prosecution witness. This is the only time they are every used. Therefore, this is a great opportunity for us. The Citizens' Assembly did not like them. It has crept in over 30 or 40 years as an extra tool to discredit witnesses, principally women, in sexual offence trials. This is its only purpose.

The difficulty with the 2017 Act is that it assumes we can have a reasonable discussion about this in the course of a trial, or at least at the start of a trial. This is not the case. As many survivors have said, most recently in Sarah Grace's recently published book Ash + Salt, they are asked by the investigating gardaí or the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, to make a decision about releasing their counselling notes. This is because they need to know in advance of the trial whether these notes might in some way contradict or cast any aspersion or doubt whatsoever on the statement the witness made to the gardaí. This is only in sex offence trials. It is a discrediting method. It is done in absolute ignorance of the therapy process, the need to heal and the impact of trauma on memory and people's recognition. We would be very pleased if the committee were to pull it away. It is not done elsewhere. Deputy Clarke is right. It is deeply traumatic. It can impact on healing and survivors tell us it does so.

This is a very important point. I have allowed a little leeway. Deputy Clarke has a very quick follow-up question and then we will move on.

I will be very brief. In a situation where somebody does not agree to their counselling records being disclosed in court, is there a negative presumption about this decision?

Ms Noeline Blackwell

I will come back in on that again. The real risk that the person takes is that the case will not proceed. The investigators will say that they do not have access to those notes, so they do not have the full story. The Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, has the discretion to decide whether to proceed or not. That is the real risk they run if they do not hand over their notes and that is the pressure they feel under. The actual section has not been tested much because it is, for the most part, irrelevant because in most cases, the deal is done before the decision to prosecute is taken at all. I am not sure if perhaps it would or would not be negative. It could be presented in a very positive way, but I believe it has only been tested twice, and in most peculiar circumstances in both cases.

It is very helpful to hear that very strong point.

I thank all of our witnesses. Something that arose when Dr. Saidléar spoke is that there is no almost data on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence compiled by the State, at least since the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, SAVI, report. The Department of Justice in 2018 charged the Central Statistics Office, CSO, with compiling and delivering a national survey on the prevalence of sexual violence. To Dr. Saidléar's knowledge, are the findings of the CSO's pilot survey reflected in the third national strategy? This will be a regular survey on a regular basis. Is she satisfied that it is capturing the data needed by the sector?

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

We have engaged with the CSO and Department all the way through in terms of the development of it. Therefore, we would be confident that this is most certainly a priority and has been for a number of years. There was some Covid-related delay in rolling out the pilot, understandably, in terms of going door to door. However, it is back and on track. On the questions that are being captured, we would have a high degree of confidence in that. On it being future-proof, as the Senator said, it is designed to be repeated every ten years. We would very much like to see it repeated every five years. We would like that gap to be greatly shortened because culture moves more quickly than that these days. Overall, we are happy with the content of it and we certainly can attest that this has been prioritised all the way through.

Ms Sarah Benson

That will only examine domestic violence only in the context of where there is sexual violence. The data in the last domestic violence national prevalence survey was collected in 2003 - nearly 20 years ago. While the national strategy eludes to continuing to gather data, it makes a worrying comment that could influence the commitment to initiate a comprehensive national domestic violence and abuse research team, which eludes to waiting until this CSO study is done to inform future ones. That just would not be acceptable because that would be at least five years. We are very out of date on that. On forms of abuse that are perpetrated, such as online stalking, harassment and such things, we have no line of sight in terms of prevalence. In addition, there is the criminal justice hub. We do not know the status of that, but it is a very basic and absolute obligation under Istanbul to have data coming from our criminal justice system. That was pre-Covid, at what I thought was an advanced stage, around the connecting the PULSE, court and probation systems with simple data that would track a perpetrator, but would give us such an insight if it gathers the sex of the victim and perpetrator and their relationship. We do not have that data in terms of our justice system. That is the vehicle where that should be captured, but I am not sure the status of it.

That was a very strong point.

I am grateful Ms Scott highlighted the commonly-used defence argument that a victim or survivor was promiscuous, which is just incredible. Should the Act be amended? Ms Scott talked about training a good bit. Should the 1981 Act be amended to remove that provision?

Ms Shirley Scott

One of the things we thought about is that even at a minimum we should be looking at perhaps doing further research to look at testing the admissibility of the arguments that are being put forward. That research was done back in 2009. We would love to see further research to see if too much latitude is being given in relation to the reasons being put forward.

That was research that I did with Ms Blackwell and others at the time. We are keen to see that research being updated.

Ms Shirley Scott

We definitely need to see that.

The findings were shocking.

I ask about recommendation 41 and female genital mutilation, FGM, legislation in a general question for all the witnesses. Are they satisfied that the 2012 Act is effective? Does it need to be reviewed and updated? Is it their view that FGM should be a ground for seeking asylum?

The witnesses can just give very quick answers.

Ms Sarah Benson

In terms of further information, our colleagues in AkiDwA, which is our peer organisation, would have led on this. I may misspeak, but my understanding is we need both data, which probably requires a research initiative with the affected communities in particular, and also there was a commitment to an FGM strategy, which is outstanding. I may be misspeaking, but both of those would be important in order to actually see if it has been effective and whether there is any requirement to amend it.

We have AkiDwA representatives with us next week and will be engaging with them.

Ms Scott mentioned an ad hoc agency. Could she perhaps expand on how that practically might work? Would the Minister appoint an interim chair? Would an interdepartmental group be convened? Can she spell out anything practically in terms of how an ad hoc agency might work?

Ms Shirley Scott

I will hand over to my colleague, Ms Blackwell, because she has done much more thinking on this.

Ms Noeline Blackwell

I thank the Senator for his question. The main purpose of this is to ensure that we do not spend the first two years of the third national strategy and, indeed, the momentum we have now, through this committee and others, in talking about - I would use the word “faffing” if I could, but it is unparliamentary – and dealing with putting together an agency, and all the energy and legislation that will take. What will be core is that when the third national strategy is announced by the Minister, and before the Senator sees her, that he will be able to see clear direction that Departments are being brought together and that there is oversight and a coherent responsibility for all of the work that is to be done in the future when these are formally combined. An ad hoc system is necessary to effectively say to people that we will bring the legislation in place in due course but in the meantime we need somebody in overall charge and running this. We need to ensure, and I believe it is meant to happen, that there will be implementation of the very urgent work that needs to be done across so many areas of the strategy for the first two years. It may be an agency or a person. We would not presume to tell the Minister how that should happen. Our real fear is that time and energy will go into looking at what it will be like in the future and that people will put off work and say that the agency can deal with that when it comes into place. We need somewhere to put that urgent work now and for it to continue, if that makes sense.

That is very good. We will move on to Senator Higgins, followed by Deputy Bríd Smith, who has indicated.

I have been accumulating questions on other questions. Therefore, I may have lost some of my original questions in the processes. There are a few interesting threads that I want to take up, the first jumping from Ms Blackwell's point.

She spoke about the importance of action on this new national strategy immediately. It should start immediately looking at everything that is already in play and how it should be done differently or better and at things that need changing, rather than waiting for a new body in the future. That puts massive pressure on the organisations before us. One clear thing is that we have recommendations 37 to 41 in this area. We also have the letter we received from the citizens, in which they are very clear in referring to the Istanbul Convention and saying that is their vision. Some of that is covered by the recommendations, but there is that wider vision. In terms of being able to provide the services that are required by the Istanbul Convention, the fact is that we have a lack of shelter places and now there will be massive pressure because more women are coming from conflict and difficult situations in Ukraine and elsewhere. There will be more pressure and many more factors. However, the advocacy work these organisations do is crucial, particularly when lots of decisions are being made in a short space of time. I imagine, and hope, they are being asked for their opinions on many things. In that regard, it is about almost turbo-powering the capacity of organisations working in this sector to be a voice in respect of this suite of decisions being made at national level. However, even at local level there are many decisions being made as well. That is the wider question.

There are a few specific matters. The maintenance piece is very interesting. My colleague Senator Ruane has put forward good legislation to improve and strengthen maintenance, and it has been taken up by the women's caucus. That is a core area and it is an example of where people are dragged through the courts in a way that is often punitive and unrewarding and that retraumatises. I am interested in the court piece. This is where we all are awash with anecdotes. People are coming to us all the time. Regarding counselling, I know people who experience the appointment of psychologists by courts for assessing things. That seems to be a whole area. This is separate to the criminal piece. In the courts, one is torn between the counselling experience one has had in trying to heal versus a court-appointed psychologist. In some cases, I have been told that one party is able to suggest a psychologist and have that applied to the partner. There is almost the adversarial use of psychology and counselling, when it should be counselling. Then one is in that dilemma.

That leads to another issue which is, for example, where one is not sharing one's counselling records, things being said about it that are not true. I am thinking of people coming through previous traumas, such as the refugee process and people having won refugee status. Aspersions have been cast on their past experiences which are not true, but how do they demonstrate that? That is another part. We talked about the family courts and child protection, but another space where women are being asked to discuss their trauma is in the asylum and refugee process. I know that AkiDwA will be in to discuss FGM strategy, but it is a wider issue. The FGM recommendations of the citizens point to a wider issue, which is the experience of domestic or sexual violence, including for those who are LGBT. They are things that are perhaps not always necessarily in the laws of a country but are in the experiences of an individual who is seeking asylum. There is a really hard burden in respect of talking about one's experiences in that regard. Perhaps the witnesses will comment on that. FGM, itself, is an example of a form of control and abuse.

On coercive control, because the Seanad pushed to get it in I am very interested in how it is being implemented. I have a fear about the opportunity piece. Obviously, Ireland is limited in terms of sentencing guidelines. With regard to data on sentencing, on one level I can see that being very useful because it shows the patterns, but I also have a fear of it setting a bad precedent whereby bad decisions that appear on that database are used as the excuse for more bad decisions. We want to identify the patterns and to ensure decisions are not made in an ad hoc manner. It sometimes seems to be the case that it can depend on luck of the draw in terms of which judge one gets. We want to make sure we do not have one bad decision setting the precedent for another bad decision.

That is enough for now, although I have a few other issues.

I am conscious of time. I ask each of you in turn, perhaps starting with Ms Scott, to address some of those. You can come back in during a further round.

Ms Shirley Scott

With regard to the sentencing, I accept what the Senator says about not wanting to set down or include poor decisions, but we have no information and no database. What we are looking for is, at a minimum, even that information from what is called ISIS, the information-----

The Irish Sentencing Information System.

Ms Shirley Scott

Thank you, Chair. If we had that reinstated and resourced to start to gather the data, we would have some concept of being able to develop something. That is my response regarding sentencing. It is not to dismiss it, but to find ways to be able to gather the information.

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

The Senator's first question was about capacity and the third national strategy coming on stream. I echo what Ms Blackwell said earlier. We have this new agency coming, but the strategy in the draft form we have seen was just empty on describing what the process is going to be regarding how we get to this new agency, which will take the next two years. That is somewhat anxiety-inducing because we are currently way beyond our capacity in terms of what is being asked of us in advocacy. Yes, we are being asked. We are here and we are very grateful for all the times we are asked and included for our advice and our best thinking, but we are certainly put to the pin of our collar and stretched in being able to give all those the time they need. We do not have the resources and capacity to do the work that is being asked of us at present, not to mind the work that will be asked of us in the next two to three years as we build into this.

As part of our thinking in looking at sexual violence as a structural issue in terms of part of the infrastructure that will change and address gender inequality, we need to look at taking seriously the analysis, thinking and advice that are available to us and the sustained specialisation that is available. I can speak for the RCNI organisation; we really have struggled to sustain and to build. The three of us have been in the sector for a long time, working and focused on this subject. The type of specialisation being looked for here, and the type of commitment and investment in individuals to build up the skills and the specialisation, require security of employment and organisations that are able to support the focus on those issues. That is always precarious, and it continues to be precarious for us.

In terms of service delivery and not just the advocacy piece, obviously in the service delivery for us part of our commitment to every survivor who walks through the door is that we will take what we understand from them and bring it to the committee, and that requires the translation. We did a mapping halfway through the year last year and, at that point, there were 1,000 survivors on waiting lists somewhere in this country waiting to start counselling in a rape crisis centre. There is that aspect of capacity as well.

Moving to the courts question, there are some concrete things. I echo, and emphasise we are seeing it as well, a concern about instruments such as the invitation for people to undergo psychiatric assessment, for example, as part of family law cases. It is an invitation but if one does not take it up, it is kind of coerced. There really is not much by way of choice there. We know of people who have been subjected to psychiatric assessments multiple times. We see that as coercive and as a punishment. When the wrong outcome has not been found, they are put through the cycle again. There is something there about the professional standards of the professions involved. I draw the committee's attention to the assessors who are not necessarily psychiatrists at all. In fact, their professional qualification is uncertain. It is an area that is unregulated. Again, people are sent to these assessors. It is unregulated and perhaps the Oireachtas could look at the regulation of the assessors and the protection of people going through that system in terms of how they are referred to it.

I reiterate that the issue in respect of sentencing guidelines is we need transparency, which is very lacking. If we have that information in the database and out in the open, we can at least have the conversation. That conversation is part of what makes our democracy robust. Let us not be afraid of the data. Let us get the data out there and have the conversation.

That is very clear. We are way over time on that round. Ms Benson and Ms Blackwell wanted to reply, but I ask them to hold their responses until the next round.

I apologise to the witnesses. They probably think I am a jack-in-the-box jumping up and down but I am attending the committee next door and my speaking slot came up. Bilocation is a key skill for a Member.

I have a few questions. Like Deputy Carroll MacNeill, I have engaged with people who have come to my clinic, in addition to the family members of those who have been involved in these situations. Will the representatives reiterate or confirm some of the issues that have been reported to me? When victims report an issue in the system, it can often just be a result of their individual experiences, but I have seen a pattern building up, especially regarding the issue of the protection order and the seven or eight days it covers. The feeling is it is issued for too short a period when it is very clear the threat will be there for much longer.

The second issue raised with me is the renewal of barring orders, when the new safe location often has to be disclosed. Some of the people involved felt that put them in an even more vulnerable position. The other issue is around the garda dealing with the overall case being the one to pursue the breach of the barring order. Have the representatives experience of that? Again, that does not seem to make sense. It might seem like a short distance to many people, but the service for a barring order is available in Dublin city centre. If the victim is in Finglas or Ballymun in my constituency, and is so controlled that every aspect of his or her life is being monitored or watched, where does such an individual get the five-hour window to get into town to apply for the barring order, get back home and then justify where he or she has been for that period? Have the representatives discussed other options as to where a barring order might be sought? Is it possible that local Garda stations might be a place where that could happen? Has any consideration been given to the idea of Garda superintendents proactively seeking a barring order on behalf of a victim? There might be an understanding that previous incidents have happened. We do not want the State stepping into people's lives, but where might the Garda be more proactive in seeking a barring order on behalf of a victim who possibly does not want to pursue it because that person is so controlled and so limited?

The other area is the idea of a domestic violence register. This has been implemented in the UK. It is the idea that somebody in a domestic violence situation might have an inkling that something is happening and that his or her partner is becoming more and more controlling. If that person was aware that this happened in a previous relationship involving that partner, he or she would either be more aware or more proactive at an early stage. How can we do that with all the controls around the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and people's right, despite committing a crime, to be able to move on and put that behind them? Has a domestic violence register been discussed?

I appreciate I am throwing a lot at the representatives. My last question concerns the area of education, especially for young men in schools, in addition to youth clubs and other places. From speaking to Ms Blackwell, I know her organisation has done quite a lot of work in schools with younger people, as I am sure other organisations have. What recommendations does she have for the Government? The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is looking at this area. What are the recommendations on where the best place is to engage young people on the issue of violence? Often, other young men are just as much victims of toxicity, especially if any sort of difference is exploited. How do we tackle the toxic culture that often exists in GAA clubs, schools or youth groups? I ask whoever would like to address any of those points to do so.

There is a lot there. Many of those questions were directed at Ms Benson. Given she and Ms Blackwell did not come in previously, I will ask them to respond.

Ms Sarah Benson

I will use the opportunity to refer specifically to the question from Senator Higgins on coercive control. I affirm everything my colleagues said regarding data being good. We are not scared of the data. I ask that we have it. Coercive control has been legislated for. Cases have been taken and there has been progress. We welcome that the initial cases that came to court, including at least one brought to trial where there was a jury, did so in conjunction with additional charges, usually for quite extreme physical and-or sexual violence. We were watching for stand-alone coercive control cases without those additional aggravating factors, notwithstanding decisions in such cases all have to be based on each individual crime. We have started to see cases and convictions proceeding, including against even serving members of the Garda. We commend the Garda on pushing forward on those.

Our legislation on coercive control has a focus on the impact on victims, which will possibly be problematic in the future. In Scotland, for example, the actual behaviour is defined as the criminal act. The impact on victims can differ, depending on their resilience, support networks and other intersecting factors. That is something we should watch for but we see progress being made in that regard and we welcome it. It is a game changer for the legislative system because it is based on a multifaceted pattern of events rather than a single action. Even psychologically, that is something the courts need to take on board in understanding it so having that law is great.

The Deputy raised many issues. To clarify, with respect to temporary orders, only two are limited to eight days, which are the interim barring order and the emergency barring order. That is because of the legislative requirement that if somebody is going to be taken out of his or her home, that person has a right to be represented and say his or her piece. In those instances, a hearing will be convened in that timeframe for either a safety order or a full barring order. It does not create a gap in that sense. A person would be issued a protective order, which does not require somebody to leave the premises, but that will last until the hearing for the full order, whether that is for a safety order or barring order. It is possible the Deputy's contact specifically related to an emergency barring order or an interim barring order.

The Garda can already apply for an emergency barring order. We are not aware of almost any cases of that happening. We have already fed into some of the different Garda structures, including the inspectorate and the Policing Authority, particularly the inspectorate, around how Garda members are made aware of this right and what they can do. They can apply for an emergency barring order out of hours and they can contact a judge. Again, it is a very finite solution. It also offers a solution if there is an imbalance, such as an applicant not having the right to a tenancy. In effect, it is an exercise in buying the applicant time to find an alternative place to go because if the person does not have the property rights to have somebody removed, he or she has to find somewhere else. The other circumstance relates to hospitals. For many years now, social workers can also make an application on behalf of somebody, for example, an individual who is hospitalised. Medical social workers tend to be aware that they can make applications, but there is no consistency. Those rights and possibilities are already there.

With respect to the Garda, courts and who has the jurisdiction, the Garda do not have legal jurisdiction to issue orders. That is probably something that would be-----

Could the local Garda station be a location?

Ms Sarah Benson

That is a separate matter. Remote orders and a mechanism for applying for them came up as a proposition during the Covid-19 pandemic and was welcomed by Women's Aid and our colleagues in Safe Ireland. The Garda was not necessarily overjoyed about the idea of stations being used. We do not disagree because they are not necessarily conducive spaces. They are limited and they do not have connectivity and so on. We have looked at different pilots of remote proceedings that have been used for separation and divorce matters, for example, in the Circuit Court. A pilot is under way in Limerick court that is looking at this.

It has slowed down. There was excellent leadership from the President of the District Court during Covid and, perhaps just with other matters, it has not accelerated. However, it has certainly been under consideration and is something we would welcome. We recognise that practical logistical issues can be a serious constraint. We would also not want it restricted to someone having to leave their own home. We would like to see a mechanism for the temporary orders, which can be done ex parte and do not require a legal representative, that could be facilitated when he is at work perhaps. That is something we would like to see pursued.

I refer to the other question around what is referred to in the UK as Clare's Law. It is legislation that, with everything that we have been trying to keep our hands in, we possibly have not been actively lobbying for but it is something we would welcome examination of here. The legislation in the UK, which has been in place since 2015, was introduced after the death of a young woman called Clare at the hands of a partner who had a serious history of violence against previous partners. That legislation gives two really important tools. It provides the right to ask the relevant body if a current partner has a history and the police have a right to tell if they have a fear. We believe it is something that would be welcome.

I am sure I will concur with my colleagues on the education piece and I might give them the time on that.

Perhaps Ms Blackwell will respond on education.

I will bring in Ms Blackwell and then Deputy Bríd Smith because I am conscious she has been waiting. We will then have final responses when guests can address anything they have not had the chance to say yet.

Ms Noeline Blackwell

I will be brief. I want to touch on two matters raised by Senator Higgins. One was in relation to tribunals. It is an important reminder that it is not only courts where people are traumatised in giving their evidence. The Senator mentioned refugee tribunals. One will also find the same in work tribunals where people have been victims of sexual harassment. This is really important. The International Protection Office, for instance, is getting training from our training team in a trauma-informed approach and understanding the impact of trauma on memory in regard to asylum claims. That kind of training, which is also happening in the Judicial Council, is really valuable. It needs to be consistent and continued because it is quite valuable.

The other point I would make is that Senator Higgins's point about capacity should be made as often as one can. If this committee is going to do good work, if the current reforms are going to do good work and if the strategy is going to good work, we will not see a reduction in the need for our services or the services of our colleagues around the country. We will see an enhanced need for them, which will increase our obligations and our need to help people. Yes, we will need extra funding for that but we also need upscaling in so many ways to deal with what we hope will be an exponential growth in people being able to access our services. We put in something in our submission in respect of the third national strategy. We need the equivalent of Enterprise Ireland to allow us to have resources, the general management, communication, and analysis resources that we have never been given in a sector that has always been scraping the ground in terms of resources. Money is important but it will not be everything.

To respond briefly to Deputy McAuliffe, what he articulated is what we hear consistently, that is, how worried people, teachers, schools and parents are about the lack of emotional frameworks that are given to young people to help them navigate the world they live in. There is a real challenge in this regard to the Department of Education and a curriculum, including recommendations made for changing curriculum that have sat there since 2019 without being implemented across this area. The Department of Education has not, in our view, taken on board what it needs to do. The truth is, we do not have the language in Ireland. Our teachers do not have the language. Our parents do not have the concepts. Nobody has the understanding in order to help our young people navigate a world in which they are mainly depending on their smartphones and peers for information. On their smartphones they are getting pornography, including hard abuse pornography.

There is a huge piece of work to be done on this. I believe it is a breach of children's rights not to be given the emotional formation they need in our formal education system, as well as more informally. There are over 40 groups like our BodyRight programme out there. It is a matter of discretion what a school gets in. It is a matter of discretion what schools do. I know that, after the very tragic death of Ashling Murphy, teachers were coming to us in absolute despair, particularly teachers of boys, about what they were going to do to talk about this. They had to say something but did not know what to say, how to say it or how to keep a conversation going. It definitely has not been addressed.

I thank Ms Blackwell for her really important words. I also thank Deputy Bríd Smith for her patience.

That is no problem. I thank the Chair for letting me in. This is a really interesting and important conversation. While I understand we are under pressure with time, I want to ask two short questions of Women's Aid. The first is on the issue of victims being able to stay in their own accommodation rather than the perpetrator being able to stay and the victim having to move. What kind of work could we do around that? Are there any ideas of how we can eliminate the possibility of the victim being driven out? As that is the norm, it means there will be fewer victims reporting the domestic violence situation because they will hide behind the fact that we have a housing crisis etc.

That leads me into my next question on the Housing for All plan by the Government. It was mentioned that there needs to be a medium and long-term consideration of accommodation for victims within that plan. How do witnesses think that can happen and what sort of measures would they envisage going into the Housing for All plan to deal with domestic violence? I ask this because in my area, Dublin South-Central, our councillors are getting funding from Dublin City Council for a domestic violence service worker to be in the area full time to help victims navigate the services that are available to them. That might be a model we could follow if we manage to secure the funding for that.

I was struck by what Dr. Saidléar said earlier about the need for funding to allow the witnesses to do a professional and permanent job, and that they would not always be on the precarious footing of wondering whether they will we get funding this year, this terms of the other. I am fully aware that has been the case with the historical record of domestic violence rape crisis services in the State. How should we argue for budgeting around these services? What would the witnesses recommend? Ms Blackwell provided this to a certain degree in her contribution but if they were properly funded, what services could be provided in the future, which cannot currently be provided and that would have a major impact on this entire issue?

We will go to Ms Benson first for Women's Aid and then I will invite Dr. Saidléar, Ms Scott and Ms Blackwell to make a final summing up. I do not think we have any other contributions indicated.

Ms Sarah Benson

I will add to Ms Blackwell's previous contribution around schools. We also have been inundated by schools and we made a conscious decision not to be the ones who go in, do a talk, and then the talk is done. We have linked up with University College Cork, which has been doing the third level bystander programme and is now piloting it in 70 schools. It is only a pilot that started with seven schools but after Ashling Murphy's death, it increased to 70 schools. We have woven in our material in to Munster Technological University with the object of ensuring the context of intimate relationships, as well as the broader issues around consent are included. We are very interested to see how that progresses. That trains the teachers to work with the young people. It is also supporting the teachers. It is sober work but it is the work that is important to ensure culture and an integrated feed-in of these issues because that is required. Excellent short-term training does not actually help if the culture of the school is not there to support disclosures and the young people to struggle with the concepts.

As regards the questions of Deputy Bríd Smith, I will start with the strategy itself. The fact is that victims, particularly women and children, and their experience of homelessness, which is connected directly and, in many cases, inextricably with domestic violence, have never been given proper visibility in the housing strategy, even in terms of counting the housing and homeless numbers. Refuges have been siloed off as something separate and different. That is a fatal flaw in terms of responding responsively and in a gender-informed way to homelessness. This encompasses women who are homeless for other reasons. Trinity College Dublin has conducted several research projects that show domestic and sexual violence in childhood, as a young adult or in intimate relationships as being a factor in homelessness. Homeless provision is overwhelmingly geared towards couples and men. There is almost no women-only homeless accommodation. Domestic violence can occur in homeless accommodation. We are working with several services in respect of how they tackle that issue of domestic violence in homeless services they are providing. Where do women go if they are homeless and need to be separate with their children? In the context of prescription in respect of local authority areas, where is it recognised that women who want to leave their abusive partners may specifically need to leave their local authority area? That needs to be given visibility. An influence that is sensitive to gender as well as domestic and sexual violence is needed and will require different thinking and different prioritisations. It is about naming it, giving it visibility and seeing where that leads in the strategy.

As regards safe home initiatives, several of our colleagues in the sector have initiated what are referred to as safe home initiatives and they are crucial. Why should victims or survivors have to be the ones to vacate when they are not the cause of the problem? That is recognised in the Tusla accommodation survey. It is not just about refuge spaces; it is about all of the multifaceted approaches and facilitating those as part of the new strategy and the implementation we think will be vital to ensure that will happen. Our colleagues in Safe Ireland will speak to that in more depth next week.

The committee will hear from Safe Ireland next week. Ms Benson's observations will give us a base to ask them about.

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

In the context of what we need to think about in terms of resources and capacity, Ms Benson mentioned the Tusla research on housing. In many ways, one of the ambitions, expectations or hopes we had for Tusla was that there would finally be national planning. After more than 40 years of services in this area, we hoped we would have national planning rather than being dependent on the capacity, goodwill and activism in towns and villages across the country where people built services from the ground up. That national planning still has not happened. We still do not have national planning of the delivery of services on domestic and sexual violence. Obviously, that will be part of the expectation in respect of the new agency, but it will be two years before we have that new agency. The Department of Justice, to which this is all transferring, is certainly aware of this and is beginning to put in place multi-annual funding, which gives us a little more security. A mindset shift is required in terms of the type of resources we are considering here. For example, we should not be afraid to say that as a starting point we need to double the funding. It is not about another €1 million here or another few hundred thousand euro there. Let us start with that figure, double it and not be afraid of that. That is the mindset we need.

As regards rape crisis centres across the country, one of the things to which we are being asked to respond right now is the influx of refugees from Ukraine. For us, there is obviously a question in respect of the trauma people are bringing with them and how we, as specialists in the area of sexual violence, might be able to contribute in that regard. One of the things that is clearly needed right now relates to the fact that the rape crisis centres on the ground can do inter-agency work with all the local actors that are engaging with those Ukrainian refugees coming into the country, but where are they meant to find the spare capacity to spend their day out with their partners in the community doing that support work and ensuring good practice, safe disclosure and safe referral pathways? There is a need to think more broadly about the type of capacity needed in centres rather than counting, if one likes, the units of service delivery in terms of counselling hours, for example. A much more creative and broad understanding of the type of services rape crisis centres and domestic violence services offer on the ground is needed.

I thank Dr. Saidléar. I invite Ms Scott to respond. If Ms Blackwell would like to have the last word, we will allow her that.

Ms Shirley Scott

I refer to Dr. Saidléar's remarks in respect of multi-annual funding. Such funding is crucial so that one is not always wondering from where the funding will come. It is about being able to meet the demands of the victims and survivors within the various centres. Dr. Saidléar referred to a mapping exercise. If there are 1,000 people awaiting counselling, for example, we need to be able to respond in a timely way to provide the services they need.

That is clear.

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

A matter I forgot to mention relates to the skill sector. Ms Blackwell touched on this. We have been building up specialisation for more than 40 years in the area of sexual violence response but we have no capacity or funding to support us in maintaining that skill or disseminating it. We need investment in how we protect and upskill across the sector and bring in new people and professionals.

That is important. Deputy Clarke wishes to make a brief point.

I wish to follow up on a comment by Ms Benson. I know Safe Ireland will go into the issue of the Tusla accommodation review in more detail next week, but from the perspective of our guests, will that review ultimately deliver the gold standard of emergency accommodation we desperately need not just in the context of accommodation, but also in terms of the wraparound supports?

Dr. Clíona Saidléar

It will if we ensure it does. It is very easy to look for quick and short-term solutions such as retrofitting old buildings and so on. We do not support such an approach. Our colleagues will lay out that it might take a little more time but if it is done right and there are trauma-informed spaces and resources, the long-term outcomes will be far better. We need to be vigilant to ensure we do not look for the quick and short-term solution that does not actually meet the ultimate goal.

I see Senator Higgins is indicating. I am conscious that we have kept our guests here for two hours, which is normally our limit. Senator Higgins may comment very briefly.

I will be brief. It is almost on a positive frame piece. When we look to what the citizens wanted, that relates to dealing with violence but also, and ultimately, to inequality and equality of participation. Do our guests wish to comment on that? It is very relevant for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, which has a new development plan. The idea of public spaces and the right to participate in the city is an important part of that. In the context of education, it is not just dealing with stereotypes and countering violence, but also embracing the idea of positive consent, positive sexuality and full and equal participation in all aspects of life. We want to kind of get rid of this violence to get to this point of equal participation. I was struck by the UN line that it is both a consequence and a cause of gender inequality and, if we want to get to gender equality, the link in that regard.

I invite Ms Blackwell to sum up and to respond on that point.

Ms Noeline Blackwell

I thank the Chairman. Senator Higgins summed it up perfectly; there is probably no need for me to speak further. All present are certain in respect of the need to deal with this form of violence, which has been hidden, and to identify and build respect and understanding of the abuse it causes and the impact of that abuse on people. Society needs to accept that such violence cannot be tolerated. People must not be of the view that if it is happening behind closed doors or in one's friend group, we do not have to care about it or address it.

It is only 30 years since we delegitimised rape by a husband of his wife when we removed the defence of being a husband in respect of the offence of rape. All of that is ultimately where we are going.

Dr. Saidléar has been on the representative organisation of the rape crisis centres for a long time. I will take the liberty of speaking on behalf of the rape crisis forum, which is another similar construction that we are part of. All of us know what to do when somebody can disclose. It can take a long time for a victim of sexual violence to disclose that they have suffered violence, given the traumatic impact of sexual violence. Most people do not disclose it and feel threatened in disclosing it. Some people just do not have the facility to get to us. Those who do sometimes cannot get the therapeutic help they need.

We believe we have the tools we need right now. We have the capacity. People can call the helpline or engage in a web chat. Just as Women's Aid does with domestic violence, we now offer services in more than 100 languages so that at least people can say the words in their own language if they can say them at all. We know how to do the therapy. For instance, we have now effectively introduced a social worker to deal with issues such as housing that might arise for somebody who is getting therapeutic help. We know that education is needed. We know that other people need the language as well.

I often compare it to an old Ford Fiesta I had. I used to have to ask people to get out when climbing up a high hill because the thing would have fallen apart otherwise. Our sector has been denied investment. We have been denied an understanding of our importance. However, between domestic and sexual violence, the State almost fully outsources its obligations in this area to us. We are happy to accept that because we are specialists in the area. We need to reach everybody who needs us, when they need us and where they need us.

Dr. Saidléar spoke about creative ways. That will require us to do better than we are doing now. It needs to be recognised that we need to build that professional approach, including management structures that nobody wants to give us money for. Everybody wants to give us money to heal people, but nobody wants to facilitate us building a strong viable set of organisations. That is what the citizens asked for. They recognised that we are dealing with something that was previously hidden and people could not talk about. It is great that we are talking about it now and we are talking about it all the time. It would be absolutely brilliant if we could bring to reality what we know can make a happier, healthier and safer society.

That is a good positive note on which to end. I thank the representatives of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Rape Crisis Network Ireland and Women's Aid for sharing their experience and expertise with us today. I apologise for adding to their workload, but this is very important. This has been very constructive for us. I am in the happy position, as Chair, of finding that all the questions I wanted to ask were asked by the very lively and engaged members on this committee. The engagement of members who have participated, such as Senators Doherty and Chambers, shows the level of interest and commitment we bring to ensuring that the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly are implemented.

The joint committee suspended at 11.34 a.m., resumed in private session at 11.36 a.m. and adjourned at 11.55 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 7 April 2022.