I am very pleased to introduce the Domestic Violence Bill 2017 in this House and I look forward to the discussion during the course of its passage through the House.
Tackling domestic violence has been a priority for me throughout my career, going back to my days as a social worker in inner city Dublin and London. What was true then is true now. Domestic violence is a pernicious evil that has devastating physical, emotional and financial consequences for victims as well as society as a whole. It is not acceptable that anyone in Ireland is subjected to abuse, fear and intimidation.
The purpose of this Bill, which has been a key priority for me, is to consolidate and reform the law on domestic violence to provide better protection for victims. I am also very glad to advise that the Bill also includes provisions to enable Ireland to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention. These include a new provision for emergency barring orders and a new offence of forced marriage.
The Bill is part of a larger package of measures aimed at dealing with the scourge of domestic violence in our community. As Senators will be aware, I am also funding a major national awareness campaign on domestic and sexual violence called “What would you do?” which is a part of the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021. I pay tribute to the many stakeholders and those working on the front line in dealing with domestic violence, some of whom have joined us in the Gallery today, who came together the other day to have a very useful consultation on the campaign. This campaign calls on us as relatives, friends, neighbours, bystanders and witnesses to say collectively that domestic violence is not right and it must stop. It is an opportunity for each of us to start a conversation about what we would do if we came across situations such as those we see on the television and radio advertisements. It is not enough for us to turn a blind eye. We must all step in to support victims and make domestic violence unacceptable in a civilised society, and it goes without saying that we must do so in a way that is safe.
I would like to outline the main provisions of the Bill. Part 1 contains standard provisions. Part 2 deals with the various orders that can be applied for under the Bill and the various court procedures we need to provide for to make sure it works for victims.
Section 5 provides for the making of safety orders to prohibit violent and threatening behaviour. Safety orders were first introduced in the Domestic Violence Act 1996 and section 5 largely re-enacts those provisions. The main change is that the scope of the safety order will be expanded to allow a court to impose as well a prohibition on electronic communication, where necessary, and that is very important. Safety orders can remain in place for up to five years and a further safety order can be made for a subsequent period of up to five years. Where a safety order is made for the protection of a dependent child, it will remain in force after the child reaches the age of 18 until the order expires. I advise Senators that I intend to bring forward an amendment to section 5 on Committee Stage to ensure persons in intimate and committed relationships but who are not cohabiting can also avail of safety orders. There has been a good deal of discussion about this and many requests. I have had it examined legally and I am very pleased that I am going to be able to bring in an amendment in that regard.
Section 6 provides for the making of barring orders to direct a person to leave a place where the victim resides, or not to enter that place. Statutory barring orders were first introduced in Ireland by the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976. These provisions were replaced by the Family Law (Protection of Spouses and Children) Act 1981. As most Senators know, the Domestic Violence Act 1996 further strengthened the law in this area. The main change being introduced in this Bill is the removal of the six-month minimum cohabitation requirement in cases involving persons in cohabiting relationships. The scope of a barring order will also be expanded to allow the court to impose a prohibition on electronic communication. Barring orders can remain in place for up to three years and a further barring order can be made for a subsequent period of up to three years. Where a barring order is made for the protection of a dependent child, it will remain in force for the period I outlined.
Section 7 provides for the making of interim barring orders where there are reasonable grounds to believe a person is at immediate risk of significant harm. They were first introduced in 1996 and this section re-enacts those provisions, which were amended in the 2002 Act. If an interim barring order is granted without notice having been given to the person against whom it was sought, it will have effect for up to eight working days. In all other cases, an interim barring order will continue to have effect until the application for a barring order has been determined.
Section 8 provides for a new emergency barring order - this is a very important new section which is quite transformational - which will put life and limb ahead of property and allow a person in a dangerous situation to get a temporary barring order even if they have no rights to the property. It has long been discussed as to whether this is feasible. I am pleased we are introducing it in this legislation. It is an important new provision which must be enacted if we are to be able to ratify the Istanbul Convention. A person can apply for an emergency barring order where he or she has lived in an intimate and committed relationship with the perpetrator without being their spouse or civil partner or where he or she is the parent of an adult perpetrator. The most significant element of this new provision is that a person can apply for an emergency barring order even if they have no legal or beneficial interest in the place concerned or if they have an interest which is less than that of the person against whom the order is sought. Emergency barring orders will only be granted where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person is at immediate risk of harm. An emergency barring order may be granted without notice having been given to the person against whom it is sought and it will have effect for up to eight working days. Once that emergency barring order has expired, another emergency barring order may not be made until one month after the expiry of the previous order, unless the court is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances. This is to ensure this order will operate as an emergency, temporary measure only. If there are extraordinary circumstances, it will be up to the court to decide that in terms of granting another one.
Section 9 provides for the making of protection orders pending the determination of an application for a safety order or barring order. A protection order can be made where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the safety or welfare of the person who applied for the order or a dependant are at risk.
Sections 10 and 11 allow for applications by the Child and Family Agency for safety orders, barring orders and emergency barring orders. Those sections re-enact provisions contained in the 1996 Act.
Sections 12 and 13 provide protection to spouses and civil partners against disposal of household effects in the period between the making of an application for a safety order or barring order and the determination of that application. Members will realise how important that would be in these circumstances where a person could lose their personal effects. This is to provide protection against that.
Sections 14 to 20, inclusive, relate to the hearing of applications, the date on which orders take effect, the delivery of copies of orders, appeals from orders and so on. We are also trying to make the court process less difficult for victims of domestic violence when they are applying for civil orders under the Bill and also in cases where an order is breached and a criminal prosecution follows. This complements what we are doing in the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill, which I hope to introduce later today. It was meant to be introduced in the Dáil yesterday but I hope it will be introduced later today. That will provide for victims giving evidence in criminal proceedings. These are various protections we are giving to victims and we are trying to ensure our courts and all the criminal justice agencies become more victim aware and victim centred.
We have a section providing for the giving of evidence through a live television link where an application is being made to the court for an order under the Bill.
We also have a new section, which will be very supportive to individuals in these circumstances, which allows a person who applies for an order under this Bill to be accompanied in court by a person of his or her choice, in addition to any legal representative. That is to make sure that people in these circumstances feel supported.
Another important provision, which I believe will be welcomed by everybody, will enable the court to seek the views of the child when certain orders are being sought on the child's behalf. This is another important element of the legislation. It is very much in line with the constitutional changes we have made in regard to children and the work we have done in the Children and Family Relationships Act, in the development of which Senators were very involved, where we wanted to ensure the view and the voice of the child in circumstances where they are affected would be heard in the courts. The courts are engaged in working out how they can best do that.
That work is ongoing. We also have the new Hammond Lane family courts which will be developed over the next number of years, where we will have much better facilities for the hearing of family court actions and cases. That is very important also as the current conditions people are working in are far from satisfactory. We have made a decision in regard to the capital for that new development and this will be very important in terms of having better provision for witnesses and better conditions so people do not come face to face with perpetrators and there is no inappropriate contact. It will make a big difference when we have that new service.
My Department is currently finalising regulations which will set down the criteria for appointing child view experts under the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. Those regulations will also apply to the appointment of experts under this section.
There is another new provision in line with the EU victims' rights directive and the victims' rights legislation I am bringing in. This requires the Courts Service to provide information on domestic violence support services to victims, which is where the very important work of victims' rights organisations comes in. People can be made aware these organisations are available because the courts will have an obligation to tell them about these services. As we know, specialised services for victims of domestic violence can play an invaluable role in providing support during the court process. The Courts Service will have to direct people and make sure they are aware these services are available.
Section 25 provides that the court may direct a person against whom it makes an order under the Bill to engage with a programme or service to address issues relating to his or her behaviour. This could be a programme for perpetrators of domestic violence at an addiction service or a financial planning service. The court now has the power to direct a person against whom it makes an order to avail of these services and it can monitor that.
Part 3 provides for offences under the Bill and its sections provide for various provisions. For example, section 31 is a new provision to provide privacy for victims in cases where there is a criminal prosecution for breach of an order. The judge will be required to exclude all persons from the courtroom except persons directly involved in the case, court officials and bona fide members of the press.
Section 32 provides for arrest without warrant where a garda has reason to believe that a breach of an order is being, or has been, committed under section 29, following a complaint from, or on behalf of, the person who applied for the order in question.
Sections 33 and 34 provide that where proceedings are brought for an offence under section 29, it will be an offence to publish or broadcast any information or photographs which could lead to identification of the victim or the person charged, or a dependant of either of them. Anyone who breaches this anonymity requirement faces strong penalties. Again, that is being very protective in regard to the victim.
There is another important new provision I am pleased to be able to introduce in this legislation, namely, the provision in regard to forced marriage. While the inclusion of this provision is necessary to enable Ireland to ratify the Istanbul convention, I believe it is important to send out a message that such behaviour is not acceptable in 21st century Ireland. It will be an offence to use violence, threats, undue influence, duress or coercion to cause another person to marry. It will also be an offence to remove people from the State with the intention that they will be forced into a marriage abroad. Obviously, the courts will have to look at the evidence and decide on each individual case. However, if we think about the kind of trafficking we know exists at present, which so often happens with the threat of forced marriage, it is extremely important to have this provision in Irish law so it is accessible for young people who might find themselves in this situation.
I will bring forward an amendment to this section on Committee Stage to clarify the jurisdiction of the forced marriage offence. The amendment will make it clear that a forced marriage offence committed outside the State against an Irish citizen can be prosecuted in Ireland, provided the act in question is also an offence in the place where it was committed. I have had to take extensive legal advice in this regard and I will table an amendment to deal with that situation.
The Bill contains transitional provisions, as is normal. There is also an important amendment to remove the exemption for underage marriage. At present, section 33 of the Family Law Act 1995 allows an application to court for an exemption to the requirement that a person must be over 18 to marry. We are removing the underage marriage exemption, which should help to protect minors against forced marriage, as requiring both intended spouses to be at least 18 should assist in ensuring that potential spouses have the maturity to withstand parental or other pressure to marry a particular person. It will also be necessary to change the Civil Registration Act 2004 and section 42 provides for this. The validity of marriages which have already taken place under the exemption will not be affected.
The remaining sections in Part 4 amend other legislation. These are routine changes which are needed because of the changes I am introducing in this Bill.
Like so many other speakers, I have had experience of many cases of domestic violence over the years. At a certain point, I perhaps naively thought we could end domestic violence and that we would not see it increasing. Unfortunately, what we see are increasingly complex cases of domestic violence where drugs, alcohol and various addiction issues come into play, and where violence continues to be used. We need a multifaceted approach to this. It is about changing societal and individual attitudes. It is also, however, about having the legislation in place. We need to work on many different levels to eradicate this evil and to continue to fight it in our society. Undoubtedly, the law has an important role to play. I believe this legislation will help to improve the protection in law for victims of domestic violence as it puts the needs of victims first and foremost. I hope Senators will support the Bill and that we can see it enacted as soon as possible. I commend the Bill to the House.