Thursday, 3 October 2019

Questions (11)

Martin Kenny


11. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to address the issues raised in a report by an organisation (details supplied) particularly the call for an urgent audit of the criminal and family law systems to develop a better process to deliver justice, safety and a consistent experience for victims of domestic violence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40128/19]

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Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Justice)

How does the Minister intend to address the issues raised in the Women's Aid report, Unheard and Uncounted, and in particular the call for an urgent audit of the criminal and family law system to better develop a process to deliver safety and a consistent experience for domestic violence victims. One of the key aspects of the report is that each case is taken on its own in the criminal justice system. A person may be a perpetrator of domestic violence and have numerous convictions but each case is considered separately.

Criminal behaviour is not taken account in the family law court. A person may have a conviction for attacking and beating a woman and may end up in the family law court and be given access to the children without any note being taken of the fact that the person has a criminal record. This is putting women in danger and many of the issues raised in this report need to be addressed urgently.

I welcome the publication of the latest Women's Aid report referred to by the Deputy Kenny. I am familiar with the very good work done by Women’s Aid to highlight, as it does on a regular basis, the impact of domestic violence. The report referred to provides important first-hand accounts of the abuse suffered by victims of domestic abuse. Understanding such victims is important to me, as Minister, and it greatly assists in the development of Government policy in this important area. My Department will study the report carefully in that context.

As Deputies will be aware, the Government has already considerably strengthened the law and structures which target domestic violence, as part of the second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021.

Central to this is the landmark Domestic Violence Act 2018, which came into force on 1 January of this year. Other developments in this area include the enactment of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which introduced a statutory definition of consent, and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017, which provides a wide range of measures and services to protect and inform victims during the progress of their case through the criminal justice system.

Moreover, An Garda Síochána is continuously improving its specialist services. Responding to the needs of victims has seen the roll-out of divisional protective services units, DPSU, with specifically and specially trained officers responsible for investigations, including engagement with victims. These units will support the delivery of a consistent and professional approach to the investigation of sexual and domestic crime.

The introduction of these measures last year and early this year supported Ireland’s ratification earlier this year of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on the prevention and combating of violence against women and domestic violence, which I announced on International Women's Day last March.

I note that the report refers to sentencing in this field. Deputy Kenny will appreciate that the Judiciary is independent in matters of sentencing. However, the recently enacted Judicial Council Act 2019 will provide for the development of sentencing guidelines by the Judiciary itself.

I recognise the work being done by the Garda, often in very difficult circumstances, and that needs to be acknowledged. The difficulty is not really about legislation or the work of An Garda Síochána but is about the court process and how this very often lets the victim down. The Minister would acknowledge that there are difficulties in respect of that.

In other jurisdictions, there is a one court system for domestic violence, where family law court and criminal law court come together, recognising that there is a serious connection between the two. It would be very worthwhile for the Department to look at that and see how it can be addressed. This is one of the key recommendations in this report. It talks about legal and procedural defragmentation of the court process in dealing with domestic violence.

The issue is that there is not sufficient communication between the criminal and family law courts and we need to see that happen. This cannot simply happen through a scheme, where both communicate with each other better. I think one would have to have the one court and one system. That needs to happen as quickly as possible.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of this report which causes me considerable concern is the fact that it states that women said that they did not feel justice was carried out and that they would not go through the justice system again. That militates against the reporting of often serious crime.

In the earlier part of my reply I set out the wide range of legislative steps. There are practical steps also being taken to ensure that the system is as supportive as possible for victims of domestic and sexual crime. I encourage all victims - women, in particular, as the vast majority of victims in these cases are women - to come forward and to contact the An Garda to ask for help.

I acknowledge, as I did earlier, the training by and expertise of An Garda Síochána. By the end of this year, there will be a divisional protective services unit of specifically and specially trained gardaí in each of the new divisions, as recently outlined by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

I initiated a review of the protections for vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sex offences through the courts. That group is chaired by Professor Tom O'Malley in NUI Galway who, I believe everyone will agree, is a leading expert in this area. A significant number of submissions were received by Professor O'Malley and it is taking some time to complete this sensitive report. It is a complex report and it will be a comprehensive report. I expect to have it by the end of the year. This will inform further on the very valid points raised by Deputy Kenny.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.