I welcome this opportunity to make statements on domestic violence. It is fitting that we are making these statements and have the opportunity to raise this important issue given that tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I hope I have made it clear, or that it has been clear, to everyone that since my appointment as Minister for Justice I have prioritised tackling all forms of domestic violence and providing support to vulnerable victims as a priority area of work. We have already made significant progress in delivering on the commitments made so far.
This is not just a commitment on my part, however; this is a whole-of-government commitment. As I outlined in the Dáil only last week, this Government is committed to building our systems around the needs of victims of domestic and-or sexual violence to ensure that anyone who is a victim of these heinous crimes is empowered and supported to come forward. When those victims come forward, the Government is also committed to ensuring they will know the system will work for them and that those who work within it will support them. This is again evident, I hope, in our programme for Government commitments, in the considerations taken into account as priorities in the context of managing the pandemic and in the work being undertaken as a priority within my Department, in conjunction with many other Departments, State agencies, NGOs and stakeholders.
Being able to feel safe and secure, particularly in one's home, is a fundamental right. I know the deep concern that I feel concerning people living in fear of those who are closest to them across Ireland, particularly during the pandemic. For many of us our home is a safe place, but for others it simply is not. I know Members share that concern. Since my appointment as Minister, I have prioritised our national response in this area of work. I welcome that Senators are here to discuss the range of actions taken across the justice sector, the special measures that have been, and will continue to be, taken in the context of the pandemic and, more broadly, to contribute to the dialogue concerning how we can continue to address these issues comprehensively in future. I look forward to listening to the views of Senators and their proposals and ideas concerning how we can continue to work together.
I am also conscious of the calls in recent weeks to bring forward legislation to ensure that the sharing of intimate images without consent is criminalised. I agree fully that this is a form of abuse that has devastating impacts. We have, unfortunately, seen the impacts this type of abuse can have on young people, as well as older people. Today, thankfully, I secured Cabinet agreement to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, as amended, to introduce two new offences to deal with this obnoxious form of abuse.
The first offence will deal with the distribution, publication, or threatened distribution or publication, of an intimate image without a person's consent, but where there was clear intent to cause harm. This offence has a more severe penalty attached to it, where someone could receive an unlimited fine or a prison sentence of up to seven years. The second offence will deal with taking, distributing, publishing, or intending to do any of those things, without the consent of the person where there is no intent to cause harm. It is, therefore, still a criminal offence, but it recognises a situation where there is no intent to cause harm. The proposed penalty for this offence is a maximum fine of €5,000 and-or 12 months imprisonment. The fact that a person may have consented to the taking of the image at the time it was taken simply does not matter. It is irrelevant. If a person is in a relationship with another person, before or during the time when the images are put out there, that will be an aggravating factor when a judge is sentencing after someone has been found guilty.
The penalties I am proposing to be attached to these offences are serious, but they must be. They recognise the harm inflicted on innocent people when intimate images of them are shared without their consent. Enacting the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 is a priority for me. I have been working closely with Deputy Howlin in this regard and I thank him sincerely. He was the first person to sponsor this Bill in 2017, he has been pushing for its enactment since and we would not have this legislation without that. I look forward to working with him and all parties as we try to ensure this Bill is enacted by the end of the year. The Bill will come before the Joint Committee on Justice next week.
I am aware this is a relatively short period but with the support of Members from all parties and none in both Houses, we could have this enacted by the end of the year.
In the context of the pandemic, the implications of restricted movements for victims of domestic abuse, including in the recent move to level 5, have been a paramount consideration for this Government. From the outset my Department led a multiagency approach to support victims of domestic abuse during this particularly difficult time and also to ensure front-line services could continue and prioritise the needs of vulnerable persons. Additional funding was made available by my Department for organisations that support victims, including victims of domestic abuse, to ensure they have the ability to continue to provide services during this period and also to make people aware they can continue developing campaigns to raise awareness of the supports provided. I have also ring-fenced funding to continue this Covid-specific support through 2021.
The proactive approach taken by An Garda Síochána to prioritise domestic abuse incidents through Operation Faoiseamh should also be acknowledged. In my county, Garda Stacey Looby ran a particular campaign in County Meath - a "go purple" day - to raise awareness and funds for local organisations in the area. I know events like this, along with other engagement and interaction with An Garda Síochána, happened across the country throughout the pandemic. I thank people for that.
It is important to acknowledge that prioritisation of domestic abuse cases by the Courts Service and Legal Aid Board has continued throughout the year. I particularly welcome the adaptive approach taken by the Courts Service following the passing of legislation in the summer to introduce remote hearings to facilitate the granting of protection orders where people could not travel. It was very welcome to see the first protection order granted earlier this year through the use of video technology. That shows the direction in which we can go.
Through the "Still Here" campaign my Department has been working with front-line service providers to get the message to victims of domestic abuse that all services are still available for anybody subjected to, or in fear of, domestic abuse, regardless of the level of restrictions in place. I said this last week and we are trying to continue giving the same message. Irrespective of whether there is a 5 km limit on travel, a county limit or any type of travel restriction, it does not apply to a victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence. It is important we continue to get that message out.
On the question of longer-term planning to ensure a victim-centred approach, we recently published Supporting a Victim's Journey, which is a plan to support victims in sexual violence cases. This comprehensively outlines measures to protect vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. This follows the O'Malley report, instigated by my predecessor as Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan. It had 57 recommendations and four overarching themes, all focused on how we can improve the system for individuals as they go through it. As part of that we are trying to continue to map a victim's journey to identify where there are further gaps in the system, not just relating to the criminal justice sector but in the kind of supports that people may need, taking into account the fact that each person's journey is different, based on his or her own factors and backgrounds. It is important we understand the subject from every possible perspective.
Implementing the points in Supporting a Victim's Journey will be progressed as a priority and we have already begun progressing it, most importantly in consultation with stakeholders, as well as the agencies that will implement the changes. This will ensure that at every step of the criminal justice process, vulnerable victims will be supported, informed, respected and treated with the utmost sensitivity and professionalism by those engaging with them.
An important element of this is of course An Garda Síochána's rolling out of the divisional services protective units, which it has committed to doing by the end of September. It has very much held to that commitment. These units, staffed by specially trained officers, will ensure that when victims of domestic abuse present to An Garda Síochána, they will be met with professionalism and sensitive expert assistance. The Garda, along with the judicial system and other stakeholders, have committed to particular training in this regard.
As part of planning how to deliver our services to meet the needs of victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, along with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, I recently published a request for a suitably qualified expert to undertake an audit of how services for victims are segmented across different Departments and agencies. The results of this independent audit will provide us with a comprehensive analysis to inform how we develop proposals for the most effective future infrastructure. In other words, this is not just about the Department of Justice or the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth; it involves housing, health, social protection and education. It is about bringing all the work done across the Government together to ensure where we have a plan, a priority and policy, it can be implemented in the best possible way.
As well as conducting this audit, officials in my Department are engaging with stakeholders to review the grant system in place for voluntary organisations to make sure we are providing appropriate funding directed to where it is needed and that these organisations that provide such vital work can plan ahead and know they will have funding for the year ahead and beyond.
We are also midway through the six-year No Excuses campaign, which is a key action of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, which will finish next year. The aims of the campaign are threefold: to increase awareness of domestic and sexual violence, to bring about a change in long-established societal behaviours and attitudes, and to activate bystanders with the aim of decreasing and preventing violence. This campaign is not only about raising awareness of the help that is available to victims of domestic or sexual violence but also designed to make us question our own attitudes and willingness to excuse what should not be acceptable. It calls on us as individuals and as a society to stand up and call out a range of behaviours that should not be tolerated. We have seen this in the past week or so with the focus on the intimate images. It is important to say that these types of campaigns do work. Having engaged with many of the organisations and NGOs that work in this area, I have heard them say that the number of calls increases when these campaigns happen. While it is important to make sure that the support, services and structures are there to help people when they come forward, it is important that people do come forward in the first instance. Requests for help from victims, as I said, has increased. Unfortunately, we have seen domestic and sexual violence increase significantly throughout the pandemic, but we have also seen people come forward for the first time to talk about the types of abuse and violence directed towards them, which is something we really need to take on board.
I wish to reassure Senators that I am fully committed to combating all forms of domestic and sexual violence. I am working to respond to the needs of victims not just, I hope, in a reactionary way in responding to the pandemic and the changing landscape we see but also in trying to ensure we put in place well-researched and well-structured support for the future. This will provide a victim-centred approach that comprehensively meets the needs of those who require it. As Minister for Justice, it is important to me to put in place the necessary structures and systems and to provide that support. This is about the people who interact with those structures and systems, in particular those who are most vulnerable, and I am absolutely committed to supporting them. I thank Members again for bringing me before the House. I look forward to listening to Senators, taking on board their views, concerns and proposals and, I hope, working with them over the coming years to try to address this significant challenge we face.