I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton. Before we commence, I remind the House that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of the amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. On Report Stage, each amendment must be seconded. Amendment No. 1 arises from Committee proceedings.
Domestic Violence Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages
I thank the Members for their very constructive input into this very important and groundbreaking legislation. It contains a number of serious amendments and will make a big difference to both men and women in our country. I look forward to its implementation. I hope to get it through the Lower House before Christmas.
The debate in this House has been extremely constructive, quite robust, and that is the way it should be, but always respectful and engaging. That is how we should go about our business. We test the legislation, we debate it and we examine it.
I also want to pay tribute to my officials who worked extremely hard on this legislation and put a huge amount of work into it. I know officials in the Department of Justice and Equality have gotten some poor press recently but I can tell colleagues here that there is no better group of officials anywhere. They work extremely hard and above and beyond the call of duty. They work out of hours and put their heart and soul into it. It is not just a job with them but a passion. They want to get it right as do all Members here and as I do also. I thank the Members.
On behalf of the Fine Gael group, we are delighted that this piece of extremely important legislation has got over the line. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is absolutely right, there was robust debate here both on Second Stage and on Committee Stage, and indeed the resumption of Committee Stage. That is the way it should be because everyone here wants to get this right.
This Bill will deeply affect the lives of people who are the victims of domestic violence. We have a duty of care to our citizens who find themselves in that difficult and totally unacceptable situation. I would also like to concur with the Minister of State about the officials. The Department of Justice and Equality has got some bad publicity in recent times and some of it justified. The officials who work with the Minister of State, and I have known some of them since he became a Minister of State, work passionately and tirelessly, as they did with Senator Ó Ríordáin when he was in Deputy Stanton's position. I have to say that has to be acknowledged.
We are truly privileged to be here today to consider legislation and improve it. Across the House we have done our work with the Domestic Violence Bill and have made many improvements and amendments before the Bill goes onward from us to the Dáil.
The two most significant amendments were those regarding the recognition in law of psychological abuse, where there are no black eyes only hurtful and painful emotional bruises, the offence of coercive control, and the statutory guidelines.
I want to acknowledge the way we have worked together in the House and behind the scenes, particularly the women, Senators Clifford-Lee, Ardagh, Murnane O'Connor, Bacik, Devine, Conway-Walsh, Higgins, Ruane, Black and O'Sullivan. Men have played their part too, in particular Senator Norris, who is celebrating his longevity in the House today. He has been a brilliant advocate and has kept our eyes focused. I am relatively new to the House and he has been a great voice of experience. I would also like to acknowledge Senator Ó Donnghaile and colleagues from Sinn Féin as well as Senators Craughwell and Boyhan. The Domestic Violence Bill would not have been as improved as it has been without our backroom allies.
I acknowledge my own team of Pádraig Rice, Aengus Ó Maoláin and Niina Niemi. We would not be here today, and the women and children and Ireland would be less safe, without the advocacy and ardour of organisations such as Safe Ireland, Women's Aid, the National Women's Council of Ireland, Barnardos and others. It has been a pleasure and an honour to work with those organisations and to be led by them.
I also thank the officials and especially the Minister of State. Initially, he was very sceptical of some of the things we were putting forward but he did take on board what we had to offer. I thank him for his belief, passion and commitment to women and children, especially those experiencing domestic violence. His determination to make things better and safer for women, children and men too, has been achieved with the Bill. I wish him fair sailing in the Dáil with it. We will keep a very close watching brief and we will remain on hand for advice and guidance.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. I strongly welcome the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill with great haste through this House. Like Senator Kelleher I pay tribute to the immense work so many individuals and organisations have done to improve and strengthen this long awaited and very important Bill. I thank in particular groups such as Safe Ireland, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Rape Crisis Centre, Barnardos, Women's Aid and others who have all put a great deal of work into briefing us and seeking to strengthen the Bill.
I thank the Minister of State for accepting my original amendment on the factors or circumstances to which a court should have regard in determining applications. I acknowledge that the amendment was a compendium, as all of us had put forward amendments along similar lines. I am pleased to see the measure has been amended by the Government and is now part of the Bill. That will make a significant difference in practice in ensuring greater consistency in the processes whereby those important orders are granted.
In respect of my amendment No. 5, I am conscious that given the tight timeframe we would not have had a chance to agree it in the Seanad in any case but I know that my Labour Party colleagues will introduce it in the Dáil. That amendment would have had the effect of amending the definition of serious offence in the Bail Act 1997 in order to enable objections to bail to be made and bail to be refused where, for example, a person has a cumulative series of convictions for breaches of barring orders, none of which individually would be serious but which taken together amount to a serious history. It is a point I made on Committee Stage and it is one that was raised with me by practitioners and NGOs. I hope it is something the Minister of State might take into consideration between now and when the Bill reaches Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. We can press the amendment further in the Dáil through the Labour Party and I am sure we will have support from other colleagues there.
We are all grateful to the Minister of State and his officials for being so engaged with us and for agreeing to accept the crucial amendments on coercive control, the new offence which is truly groundbreaking and historic, the amendment on aggravated factors which went so far towards meeting our concern that there should be a specific offence of domestic violence, and the amendment on specific factors for a court to take into account in deciding whether to make an order. The Bill will make an immense difference to the victims and survivors of domestic violence, to women and children who are suffering so much every day in homes across the country.
I thank the Minister of State for his work. It has truly been a great experience to work alongside him and other colleagues in the House to produce this groundbreaking legislation. I pay particular tribute to Senator Kelleher who has been to the fore in this debate, assisted by many other people in this House and civic groups. It is a wonderful example of collaborative work.
It is great that a signal will go out from these Houses that predators are no longer safe in Ireland, people who prey on other people within relationships and within their own homes will have nowhere left to hide.
I take this opportunity to again raise the issue of civil legal aid and the minimum contribution waiver for all applicants in domestic violence applications in the District Court. It is very important and it would be a very welcome step forward. It is not going to affect the budget hugely or a significant number of people but it will greatly enhance the ability of people to seek redress before the courts. I ask the Minister of State to consider that in line with the Bill.
Tá fáilte ar ais roimh an Aire Stáit, go h-áirithe don ócáid seo. I reiterate the words of thanks and commendation to the Minister of State and his officials. In a week that understandably and justifiably has not been the best for the Department of Justice and Equality, the passage of this legislation through the Seanad, as Senator Clifford-Lee rightly said, sends out a very clear message and acts as a beacon of light and shows that the Seanad takes this issue very seriously. While it is right for us to recognise the work put in by the Minister of State, his departmental officials, NGOs, Senator Kelleher and Members across the Chamber, it is important also to remember the role of our support staff in assisting us. They have been critical to the process. It is welcome that Senator Kelleher's support staff have been so helpful to all the rest of us in that regard. I say fair play and thanks for that help in this instance.
It is good to be positive and to welcome the passage of the Bill through the Seanad and onward to the Dáil but I am reminded of the people who are at the heart of it and who no doubt will continue to be affected, namely, the survivors of domestic abuse, and who unfortunately will experience it in the future. This is an important Bill that is going through the House today and it is one on which we can all be rightly proud of our own contribution. A change in the law is welcome. It is good and necessary in this instance but my hope is that it will bring about a change in culture and attitude within the State and be an enabler, and something that gives the capacity to the Garda and the Judiciary to put away and act accordingly against those who would, as Senator Clifford-Lee rightly said, prey on people within relationships.
I thank the Minister of State and his staff for all the work they have done on this matter but I also acknowledge the work that was done by the Oireachtas committee a number of years ago on domestic and sexual violence. The committee produced a report. I thank in particular Senators from all parties, especially the Independent Senators, some of whom have made a very valuable contribution, and all of their support staff.
Drafting any piece of legislation takes a lot of time and commitment on the part of people who are really committed to what they believe in. Drafting amendments is not only about trying to get them through but getting people on the other side and the Department on board. Senators succeeded in doing that. Credit must be given to all those involved, both Senators and their support staff and the Minister of State for being prepared to listen.
Sometimes due to the way the Oireachtas has been structured, it has been very much a case of accepting what has been produced and there is a reluctance to accept amendments. In this case the amendments were accepted and they are the right way forward. In the mid-1970s in this country there was very little legislation on family law and domestic violence and it has been a slow process. The Bill is a very valuable one which provides the necessary protection for people who have suffered domestic violence.
Senator Colm Burke reminded me of the work a number of us did on the Oireachtas committee a number of years ago when we had hearings on domestic violence and we produced a report. It was a very powerful period. Senators Bacik and Conway were members of the committee as well.
It is worth mentioning.
Yes. Many of the NGOs gave of their time and expertise, which was extremely valuable. The process has been building for some time. I was pleased that we were in a position to debate the amendments, improve on them, refine them and bring them forward as we have done.
On the question of civil legal aid costs, I have some information that might be of use and interest to Senator Clifford-Lee.
The Legal Aid Board provides civil legal aid and advice for people who cannot afford to pay for a solicitor from their own resources. Applicants for civil legal aid and advice are required to meet both the merits test and the financial eligibility criteria under section 29 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 and the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 1996 to 2016. The vast majority of applicants granted legal aid and advice are required to pay some contribution. The majority of applicants for legal aid in connection with domestic violence relief pay the minimum contribution.
Senators will note that section 29(2)(b) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, as amended by section 80 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008, provides that the Legal Aid Board may waive any contribution payable or accept a lower contribution on the grounds that a failure to do so would cause undue hardship to the applicant. The board has put in place guidelines for its decision makers on applications for a waiver of contributions. The guidelines provide for a sympathetic approach to be taken to applications for a waiver in cases in which the application is in connection with a domestic violence matter and the person’s sole source of income is social welfare payments. This discretion enables the board to ensure vulnerable persons seeking civil legal aid are in a position to access it. In 2016, fees totalling €38,700 were waived in domestic violence cases.
The Legal Aid Board has a policy role in the provision of civil legal aid and periodically brings proposals to my Department on financial eligibility and other criteria in dealing with applications for civil legal aid. A submission has been received from the board recommending a number of scheme changes, including a waiving of fees for vulnerable applicants. The proposals are being examined within the Department. The amendments tabled by Senators for consideration on Committee Stage have been brought to the attention of officials with responsibility in this area who are already considering the issue.
The vast majority of applicants granted legal aid and advice, including those who are seeking legal services in connection with domestic violence remedies, are required to pay some contribution. The minimum amount is €30 for legal advice, while a minimum amount of €130 applies to applicants for legal aid, which sum includes the contribution already paid for advice. The amount of the contribution depends on a person’s income and assets. It should be noted that aid contributions in domestic violence cases in the District Court are capped at a maximum figure of €417. However, the majority of applicants for legal aid in connection with domestic violence reliefs pay the minimum contribution. The Legal Aid Board received approximately €1,557,855 in client contributions in 2016. The amount for client contributions in 2016 in domestic violence cases is estimated at €177,076, of which €38,699 was waived. The amount of €138,377 received represents just under 9% of total contributions received. The overall amount is actually quite small, but we have taken on board the points made by Senators on this matter which is being examined. I thank Senators for raising this important issue.
I thank the Acting Chairman and staff in the Seanad for facilitating the passage of the Bill through Report and Final Stages.
I thank the Minister of State and Senators for contributing.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 3.30 p.m.