Domestic Violence Victims Being Failed By Justice System

Women's Aid have called for an in-depth Government audit of the current criminal and family law systems, with the majority of those affected by domestic violence not left feeling safer nor given a sense of justice.

The national frontline organisation supporting women affected by domestic abuse published 'Unheard and Uncounted: Women, Domestic Abuse and the Irish Criminal Justice System'.

The report outlines serious gaps in official statistical data on domestic violence related crimes. The report also shows that women's engagement with the criminal justice system did not leave the majority feeling safer nor did it give them a sense of justice. Tellingly, most of the women interviewed by Women's Aid for the report, said that they wouldn't, or were unsure if they would, go through the process again.

Women's Aid said the new report points to a system that is "deeply flawed, fragmented and not fit for purpose when dealing with the complexities of domestic abuse".

The organisation is calling for immediate implementation of the gold standard for data collection, an in-depth Government audit of the current criminal and family law systems and a reconfiguration to create a better process to deliver justice, safety and consistent experiences for victims of domestic violence.

The new report is the result of a two stage project on women's experiences of the Criminal Justice System.

Sarah Benson, the CEO of Women's Aid said: "As a leading national frontline support service for women experiencing domestic violence, we hear of the many difficulties they encounter when accessing the criminal justice system to seek justice and safety. Women using our services tell us of their dissatisfaction with both the process and outcomes of criminal proceedings against perpetrators, often describing these as inadequate and merely 'a slap on the wrist'.

"This new report contains the findings of a year-long sentencing media watch of criminal proceedings against current or former intimate partners, which were reported in national and local media. The report also details the conclusions from a consultation of 20 women who experienced a wide range of criminal behaviour from their partners or exes."

The Sentencing Media Watch took place between May 2018 and April 2019 and attempted to fill the knowledge gap in the absence of official data on charges, verdicts and outcomes in criminal trials in the context of domestic abuse.

Ms Benson explained: "Domestic violence is present in the criminal justice system and it is not confined solely to breaches of Domestic Violence Orders. The offences committed in intimate relationships are wide ranging and severe. Over 100 charges were pressed in the 65 cases that we have noted in the sentencing media watch part of our report. These charges included: assault, threats to kill, rape, false imprisonment, sexual assault, trespassing, firearms offences, abduction of a child and attempted murder."

Urging caution when discussing the information in the Sentencing Media Watch, Ms Benson continued: "We are aware of the limitations of our Sentencing Media Watch and urge caution about drawing conclusions from the findings of the project in year one. The information comes from media reports containing partial details and reflect media interest rather than being a definitive picture. However, in the absence of any official data, it allows us to draw some tentative conclusions. For example, in 97% of cases the victim was a woman (63 of 65 cases) and 52% of incidents took place in the woman's home. 58% of perpetrators were current partners while 38% were ex-partners. 41 victims were reported to have sustained physical injuries. Children were present in the home during 21 incidents during which 5 children were reported as being injured. The media reported sentences for 50 cases. These sentences included 45 prison sentences (ranging from 1 month to 8 life sentences). Of the 45 prison sentences, 38 cases were either partly or fully suspended."

The second strand of the report was an in-depth consultation with 20 women whose partners were charged with crimes against them which gives us an exclusive insight into the criminal justice response to victims of domestic abuse from reporting to An Garda Síochána right through to the trial, victim impact statement process and sentencing in the Criminal Courts.

According to Women's Aid, the women interviewed for the report described good, mixed and negative experiences when contacting the police and a criminal justice process that is inconsistent, long, draining, slow and emotional. Some women felt that they were on trial rather than the accused. The consultation also pointed to a reductive 'incident based' approach to domestic violence and a lack of joined up thinking within the legal system which fails to acknowledge the persistent, repetitive and long term experiences and impacts of abuse and disregards the interplay of criminal and family courts.

Ms Benson said: "One of the most striking things is the sheer number and scope of proceedings women find themselves involved in both the family and criminal courts, often concurrently. These proceedings are lengthy and we are hugely concerned about the lack of communication between the family and criminal courts, especially when considering custody and access applications. It is not uncommon for convictions for violent offences against the mother in the criminal court to be seen as irrelevant when determining access arrangements in the family court.

"Additionally, the fragmented approach in the criminal justice system means a low level sentence for a single incident does not proportionately mirror the impact of often years of abusive and criminal acts by women's partners or ex partners. The approach also prevents accurate risk assessment to prevent further abuse. Even when everyone does everything well, our system is not equipped at present to effectively respond to and sanction domestic violence related crimes."

The report also highlights the significant data gap relating to domestic violence. The relationship between victim and offender is not recorded in the Central Statistics Office nor in Courts Service data. Therefore, domestic violence related offences are not identifiable in the data and it is not possible to analyse domestic violence related crimes and sentences effectively. This major flaw makes it impossible to evaluate and monitor how the Criminal Justice System responds to victims experiencing abuse by a current or former intimate partner.

Ms Benson added: "It is essential that the response of the criminal justice system to domestic violence victims vindicates their right to justice and ensures their protection and safety. There isn't a specific offence of 'domestic violence' in Ireland, so crimes committed by intimate partners are prosecuted under a number of offences such as assault, sexual assault, rape, stalking, criminal damage. However, as data about the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim is not collected, it is not possible to count offences going through the criminal court that are in the context of domestic abuse. This lack of data is hugely problematic and the State is failing to meet its obligations on data collection on violence against women as outlined in the Istanbul Convention and its own National Plan on Combatting Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence. If we cannot see a problem then we cannot solve the problem."

Ms Benson concluded: "Women's Aid has identified the issues and we have pointed out the gaps in this report. It is now time for a comprehensive overhaul of the system that is clearly not fit for purpose. This report provides an opportunity for the Government to take the necessary steps to look at good practice and learning from other jurisdictions and make changes required to better service the thousands of people who are experiencing domestic abuse. Ireland has been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole for too long. It's time for the system to adapt to the crimes of domestic abusers and hold them to account rather than forcing victims to trust a system that is not doing them justice."


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