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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Alamy Stock Photo File photo of Dolphin House.

'Nowhere to go': How the housing crisis is lethal for domestic violence victims

There was an increase in the number of applications last year, along with an increase in the number of court orders being breached.

IN COURT 41 in Dublin city’s Dolphin House, Judge Patricia Cronin presides and over the course of a few hours of a September morning, she hears applications for interim barring and interim protection orders from several women.

In one case in front of the Dublin District Family Court, a woman applying for a protection order for herself and her child told the court that she was in the process of getting a divorce from her husband. He had assaulted her, she told the court, adding that she has to remain in the home with him as she has “nowhere else to go”. 

Before the judge granted the order, she said her husband “gets angry and aggressive” and that she was scared in her own home.  

It is a story which will be familiar to anyone working with victims of domestic violence. 

The housing crisis may be the root cause of an increase in the number of domestic violence orders – such as this one – being sought by women, according to Women’s Aid.

While the Court Service Annual Report for 2022 has yet to be published, it is understood that there was a 4% increase in the number of domestic violence applications last year, with approximately 23,500 related applications.

There has also been an increase in the number of court orders being breached, with 4,741 incidents being reported t0 Gardaí last year. 

Eavan Ward, the services manager for Women’s Aid, told The Journal that a possible factor in the rise in domestic violence applications is the lack of alternative accommodation due to the housing crisis. 

“Women are forced to remain living with abusive partners. It’s very, very difficult to secure private rented or any other housing alternatives, so women are forced to stay in situations that are dangerous to themselves and their children,” she said.

Maybe 10 years ago, it was easier to find alternative accommodation – not just in Dublin, but everywhere – but now, it’s incredibly difficult.

“We know accessing refuge is not a solution for everybody and there obviously aren’t enough refuge spaces for everybody who needs them, and so unfortunately, women are kept in situations where they are subjected to domestic abuse on an ongoing basis.”

The housing crisis has been recognised by several charities and organisations as having a significant impact on those experiencing domestic violence.

Earlier this month, the Mercy Law Resource Centre (MLRC), which offers free legal representation to people who are homeless, published a report that found that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in Ireland. 

It found that women can face “multiple barriers” to securing adequate housing when fleeing domestic violence.

It also states that the failure of the official homelessness figures to include those accessing refuge accommodation is “striking given that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness, particularly among women”.

“Research specific to Ireland confirms that many homeless individuals in Ireland have
histories of domestic violence, which renders the continued exclusion of refuge accommodation from the official figures problematic,” the report states.

The current housing pressures, combined with a legal system that is overwhelmed, are a lethal combination for victims of domestic violence. 

Ward said that there is a lot of pressure on all services while the court system is also “under immense pressure”, with long delays in securing legal separation or divorce.

“It forces people to stay in situations without any kind of conclusion or remedy for many years and women are forced to seek domestic violence orders due to ongoing abuse in those situations.”

Dolphin House

Back in Court 41 in Dolphin House, one woman who was seeking an interim barring order against her spouse, who was not present, told the court that he had breached a previous protection order twice.

She said he had damaged property in her home and assaulted her as she held their child in her arms. 

The judge granted the order, which remains in place for eight days, based on the woman’s evidence, saying she was satisfied that there was a serious and significant risk to her safety. 

She instructed that the order be served to the man by Gardaí and advised the woman to consider availing of legal aid. 

In a separate case, a woman who was seeking an interim protection order told the court that the father of her children was in prison, but was due to be released soon.

She said she had allowed him to make calls to their home from prison to speak to their children, but had since had to stop the calls as he was threatening her over the phone, telling her that he would “punch the head off me, like he did before” and saying “awful things” to their children. 

Judge Cronin granted the interim protection order, which prohibits the man from using or threatening to use violence against her, following or communicating with her and watching or being near her home.  

Women’s Aid runs a drop-in information and support service at Dolphin House for women experiencing domestic abuse. Ward told The Journal that this service supported 890 women last year.

“That’s one full-time post there, so you can imagine the level of demand and the pressure on services trying to meet that level of demand. It’s absolutely huge.” 

She said she supports the call from a District Court judge earlier this month, who called for mandatory legal aid to be granted for all cases relating to domestic violence. 

In order to qualify for legal aid, you must have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000 and disposable assets of less than €100,000. A review of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme is currently underway.

“We have called for that threshold to be increased because it hasn’t increased for many, many years,” she said.

Legal representation is very, very expensive so it’s important that everyone has access to justice and increasing those thresholds is part of that.

“We would support women to apply for legal aid… and we have really good working relationships with the legal aid boards in the areas that we’re in. They provide an absolutely lifeline in terms of providing legal representation for women who simply could not afford it, but the band needs to be widened to include what can be termed working poor.”

Rise in order breaches

In June, figures released by the Gardaí showed that there has been a rise in breaches of domestic violence related court orders in recent years, including barring, interim barring, protection and safety orders.

In 2018, there were 3,035 incidents relating to court orders being breached reported t0 Gardaí.

This escalated to 4,675 incidents in 2021, which rose once again to 4,741 incidents in 2022.

Between January and May of this year, 1,736 complaints on breaches of domestic violence-related court orders were recorded.

In the same month, Women’s Aid’s annual report for 2022 showed there had been almost 34,000 disclosures of domestic abuse against women and children made to the charity that year. 

It was a 16% increase in contacts compared to the previous year and the highest-ever number received by the organisation.

These reports of abuse included coercive control, emotional abuse, physical violence, sexual abuse, and economic control.

Ward said that the reported figures are “only the tip of the iceberg”.

“We know that those who reach out for support are not at all 100% of women are experiencing abuse in homes or in their intimate relationships,” she said.

Along with its national helpline, Women’s Aid also runs a one-to-one service to provide support to women and a High Risk Support Project, which is specifically for women who are at serious risk of harm or death due to domestic violence. 

It also operates a dedicated maternity project that provides referral pathways for women who are receiving maternity care from the three Dublin based maternity hospitals.

According to the HSE, experiencing domestic violence during pregnancy means a woman is more likely to have a premature birth, a low birth weight baby and poor weight gain during pregnancy. 

It can also increase the likelihood of infections, poor mental health and other serious pregnancy health complications.

The HSE states that women in Ireland also report miscarriage because of physical violence during pregnancy.

Increased awareness

Caroline Counihan, a legal advisor to Safe Ireland, told The Journal that the rise in applications does not necessarily mean there has been a rise in the prevalence of domestic violence.

“Our working hypothesis is, in a sense, positive, because we think that there’s much less tolerance of this and more awareness of support services, of what can be done and of improvements in legislation as well. We think that has definitely got an influence on more people coming forward,” she said.

What we were dealing with for a long time – and I think this is slowly changing – was a culture of silence and repression and minimisation, and dare I say in some ways, almost normalisation. I think now that has been challenged.

Ward also pointed to greater societal awareness about domestic violence since 2020 as a potential cause for the increase in applications. 

“Every time a woman is murdered, that does shine a spotlight for the general public, but also for women who are experiencing abuse. You can imagine it’s very frightening when they’re hearing maybe women who are their same nationality, their same age in the same circumstances, who have lost their lives because of domestic violence.”

Deaths in Ireland

According to Women’s Aid’s Femicide Watch, 12 women died in violent circumstances in Ireland last year, the highest figure in 10 years. 

She said Safe Ireland has also called for free legal aid to be granted in all domestic violence cases, as well as in some others. 

“We’ve said in our submission to the Civil Legal Aid Review that serious consideration should be given to taking away any means test or contribution in a case which is not  solely a domestic violence act case, but it’s another kind of family law case, but there is a background of domestic violence.”

According to Counihan, An Garda Síochána has reacted “very well” to domestic violence cases since the commencement of Operation Faoiseamh during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In a sense, Operation Faoiseamh has not stopped and that is a concentrated and focused attempt to keep in touch with and support domestic violence victims in every way possible and to take a very proactive interest in it. Even where there’s not going to be a formal report or a prosecution, there will still be advice and support.”

She also acknowledged the role of the Government, who have “upped their game” with the publication of the Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (DSGBV).

“They have been much more proactive about bringing about awareness campaigns and ads on TV.”  

Ward also praised the Government’s and the Gardaí’s response to the issue of domestic violence. 

Prevalence survey

A National Domestic Violence Prevalence Study forms part of the goals listed in the Third National Strategy on DSGBV.

The Central Statistics Office will carry out the study along with the new statutory agency dedicated to tackling DSGBV, which is expected to be up and running in January.

Asked when the study will commence, a spokesperson for the CSO told The Journal: “We are awaiting the establishment of the new agency in order to adequately scope the needs/requirements for the project, as well as working with the wider stakeholder community. This will then feed into the deliberations on timeline.”

Ward said the establishment of the new agency is “very important” and something organisations such as Women’s Aid have been calling for for years. 

“That’s a very very significant piece of government strategy that recognises the need for this agency to lead on not only the service provision work, but also the awareness-raising, the education, the policy, and they all need to be under the one agency, and that’s really, really important,” she said.

“We’re at a point now where that agency will become operational from January next year and then we’ll see what changes that brings, but I’ve no doubt it will bring positive changes for the sector.”

Need help? Support is available:

  • The 24/7 National Freephone Helpline for Women’s Aid is 1800 341 900. There is an online chat service on operating mornings and evenings and a text service for people who are deaf and hard of hearing on 087 959 7980
  • Men’s Aid: 01 554 3811
  • Safe Ireland offers a list of 38 domestic abuse services in towns across Ireland.
  • Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 778 888
  • Male Domestic Abuse: 1800 816 588
  • Still Here government support
  • For urgent assistance, call An Garda Síochána on 999 or 112