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Domestic Violence Incidence (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 806 No. 2

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Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald The facts revealed once again in today's Women's Aid annual report are shocking. They are not just shocking; they are depressing, because annually Women's Aid and other organisations release statistics which lay bare the reality of domestic violence in this State and the brutality that women and their children experience in their homes. We know that one in five women in Ireland will experience violence and abuse from an intimate partner at some stage in their lives. Women's Aid revealed that over the course of 2012, there were 3,230 disclosures of direct child abuse to its aid helpline. That is a 55% increase on last year. The helpline receives 32 calls each day and has had more than 16,000 disclosures of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.

When one reads the report and moves beyond the statistics to the human experiences of these victims of abuse, the detail is quite harrowing. Women have given disclosures of being locked in and prevented from leaving their houses, being drugged, assaulted and hospitalised, being beaten while pregnant or breast-feeding, being gagged to stop screaming, being raped and sexually abused, including being pinned down and assaulted, and being forced to have sex in return for money to feed their children. These are not the kinds of scenario that I take any joy in reading into the record of this House but it is important that we understand the true, harrowing human suffering endured by large numbers of women and their children behind the statistics. Deputy Mitchell O'Connor quite rightly pointed out in her contribution that children witness these violent episodes in their homes and are damaged by that.

The programme for Government promised consolidated domestic violence legislation. I am very disappointed that the Minister has put that on the back burner in favour of other legislative priorities. Women's Aid has called, very reasonably, for an on-call system for accessing emergency barring orders to give women and their children at risk 24-7 protection. It has also called for the removal of the strict cohabitation criteria to extend eligibility for protection under the domestic violence legislation to women who are abused in dating relationships. I was disappointed in the Minister's response to a parliamentary question that I put to him in respect of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which cited Article 52 of that convention, a provision for emergency barring orders, but set it against the property rights defined under the Irish Constitution, offering that as a rationale for this State's not signing, or indeed ratifying, the convention. The time for action is now.

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter): Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I thank my colleague Deputy Mitchell O'Connor for raising this matter, and Deputy McDonald, who seems to be consistently disappointed about everything. I regard this as an issue of particular importance and have always done so.

The report released by Women's Aid today shows that domestic violence continues to be a blight on the life of many women, children and indeed men in Ireland and shows the importance of the community and voluntary sector in the provision of appropriate responses to social problems in Ireland. The community and voluntary sector, which includes organisations such as Women's Aid, comprises no fewer than 60 domestic violence services in this country, offering helplines, emotional support, information, court accompaniment, onward referral and refuges. A key support offered to those who avail of these services, including male victims who contact Amen, is safety planning. This supports the person in planning a safe and speedy departure from his or her home at a predetermined time or when the situation demands. This is a sensitive area, as violence can intensify where a victim gives signs of leaving the home or the relationship.

The domestic violence sector in Ireland spent €31.2 million in 2011, according to annual accounts. The sexual violence sector spent an additional €7.8 million in that year. In 2012, the HSE, the main State funder of the sector, contributed €14.5 million to the domestic violence sector and granted a further €4 million to the sexual violence sector. The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government also provides significant State funding, primarily to fund voluntary sector refuges.

The issue of domestic violence is one that I and this Government take very seriously. Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, is continuing to co­ordinate the implementation of the National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2010-2014. The remit of the strategy covers men and women, including older people. One of Cosc's key objectives on its inception in 2007 was to improve awareness of the issues and the services available and to encourage family and friends of victims to recognise the problem and help them to get appropriate assistance from the State and from organisations such as Women's Aid. In that sense, it is encouraging to note that more people are seeking help in dealing with these problems.

After coming into office, I did in fact at a very early point take action to reform the law. I was able to bring through important amendments to the Domestic Violence Acts 1996 and 2002 through the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, one of the first Bills enacted during my term as Minister. The net effect of these changes has been to extend the protections of this legislation to a wider range of people and circumstances. The first amendment allows for a parent to apply for a safety order against the other parent of his or her child, even where those parents do not live together and may never have lived together. This amendment ensures that the protection of the law is available where access to a child is an occasion of intimidation or even violence between disputing parents. The second amendment extends the protections of the Acts to same-sex couples who have not registered a civil partnership, on the same basis as had previously been available to unmarried opposite-sex couples "living together as husband and wife". These same-sex couples are no longer required to have lived together for at least six of the last 12 months before one of them can obtain a safety order against the other.

In addition, during its Presidency of the European Council, Ireland successfully negotiated an agreement with the European Parliament on the European Protection Order, a civil law measure which will ensure that victims of domestic violence and other forms of violence, harassment and intimidation can avail of national protections when they travel to other EU member states. I was particularly pleased to be able to effect an agreement on this very important measure in my position during the Presidency as Chairman of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which sends an important signal that domestic violence, harassment and intimidation are unacceptable throughout the EU.

Work to develop further responses to help children affected by domestic violence is expected in the context of the new child and family support agency, which will replace the HSE as the core funder of domestic and sexual violence services and which will fall under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Work is also being undertaken on the consolidation of domestic violence legislation and further reform. As Deputy McDonald, who complains about this matter, well knows, there is a substantial legislative programme and I prioritised immediate issues relating to domestic violence at an early stage. I hope in 2014 to bring the further legislation required in this area before the House.

Finally, I wish to address the particular issue raised by my colleague Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. I absolutely agree with her that there is a need for new and better family court facilities in this State. One of the reasons for the proposal to have a constitutional referendum to provide for a unified system of family courts is that we need an integrated family court structure with the necessary back-up services and with judges who have the special skills necessary to deal in a sensitive and appropriate way with family cases. The Deputy may be interested to know that in early July a consultative seminar will take place involving members of the legal profession working in this area to feed into the process of developing the proposals necessary to create a new, unified family court structure. In that context, one of the issues I am exploring is the identification of funding that will be necessary to improve the court structure that administers family law.

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