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'He did not do one day': Six in 10 domestic violence offenders get suspended sentence

The vast majority of victims are women and over half are abused in their own home.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Andrzej Wilusz

SIX IN 10 domestic violence offenders get a suspended sentence, according to a new report by Women’s Aid.

The organisation has compiled information about domestic violence cases reported in Ireland from 1 May 2018 to 30 April 2019.

During this 12-month period, there were 65 domestic violence cases reported in the media. The vast majority of victims (97%) were women (63 cases) and over half (52%) of the incidents occurred in their own home (34 cases).

Of the 50 cases where sentences were reported, 45 were prison sentences, ranging from one month to eight life sentences. Of these 45 prison sentences, 32 were reported as suspended (seven fully and 25 in part).

A total of 104 charges were mentioned in the 65 cases, including many serious assaults and sexual offences. At least 25 of the 65 perpetrators (38%) were reported to be former partners at the time of the offence.

Most women interviewed for the report were dissatisfied with the sentences passed down and did not believe that justice was carried out. The majority of participants believed that the final sentence did not reflect the severity of abuse they experienced.

One woman said of the man who abused her, who received a six-month suspended sentence for his actions: “He did not do one day for all he did.”

In 41 cases injuries were reported, ranging from bruises to injuries requiring hospitalisation (eight cases). In 16 cases the victim was reported to have been choked, strangled or otherwise made unable to breathe, and weapons were mentioned in 15 cases.

Children were mentioned as part of the household in 39 cases (60%) and were reported to have been on the premises when the offence was committed in 21 cases. Children were reported to have been physically injured in five cases.

A history of domestic violence was noted in 24 cases and 15 women were reported to have an order against the perpetrator under the Domestic Violence Act at the time of the incident.

The report states it is likely this figure is underestimated due to the limitations of the methodology, noting that in more cases the incident reported was not the first the woman had experienced.

Pressure not to prosecute

The report notes that many victims feel under pressure to not prosecute, sometimes by their own family members or their partner’s family.

“A number of factors influence women’s decision whether to engage or not with the criminal justice process. These considerations include the availability of support, safety and well-being of the children, belief that the process may or may not deliver justice and make them safer,” the report states.

One woman explained why she did not prosecute her partner after he assaulted her in front of their children, leading to serious injuries.

The woman said gardaí encouraged her to prosecute, but her partner’s family and children put pressure on her to drop the case.

The report notes that days after the assault the man in question checked himself into rehab and “there was pressure from his family to drop the criminal case as he was now getting help and it ‘would not be in the interest of the children’.”

The woman said the abuse had been happening for many years but the man’s family excused his behaviour “because of depression and alcohol issues”.

case studies Source: Women's Aid

“It would have been his first offence before the court, as she had not reported him before, so she felt that it would at most be a suspended sentence or a short one. A period in prison would only make him more resentful and angry.

“They were in the process of separating and she did not want to jeopardise what had been agreed,” the report notes.

“I would have prosecuted if I had no children, but the best way to protect the children was not to. If it was the gardaí prosecuting it would be fine, it would not be on me, deciding to prosecute should be the Garda’s responsibility, not mine,” the woman said. 

It should be the State prosecuting, not mummy prosecuting daddy. If the decision is not on the woman then the perpetrator cannot manipulate or control it. It would change the way the crime is seen as well.

The report notes that the court process for domestic violence is “both prolonged and stressful and there is a lack of support for victims before, during and after criminal trials”.

Most women interviewed did not believe that the criminal justice process had made them safer. Irrespective of whether there was a conviction or not, most of the women said they would not go through the process again or were not sure if they would.

‘Inconsistent response’ from gardaí

The response from An Garda Síochána to domestic violence cases is inconsistent, according to the report.

Those who took part in the research rated gardaí’s response, with it ranging from excellent to very poor. The quality of the response “was dependent on the actions of the individual gardaí”, the report states.

Participants indicated that the components of a positive garda response include:

  • fast attendance at call-outs
  • understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and of the risk to the woman’s safety posed by the perpetrator
  • availability and continuity of contact with a specific garda
  • referrals to support
  • thorough and quick investigations
  • risk assessment and minimisation

Lack of data

The report notes that the lack of available data about domestic violence “prevents any effective monitoring of how the criminal justice system responds” to such crimes.

“Women’s Aid would have liked to be able to compare sentencing of crimes occurring in a domestic violence context with the same crimes more generally. This has proven impossible because of the lack of accurate sentencing data,” it states.

The cases included in the report are not a representative sample of cases going through the courts, just those reported in the media.

Detailed data on sentencing by offence is quite limited in general. There is no official data on sentencing for domestic violence crime.

“What the sentencing media watch can do is offer us a limited picture in the absence of any data. Official court data is urgently needed to understand sentencing in domestic violence cases,” the report states.

There isn’t a specific offence of ‘domestic violence’ in Ireland, so crimes committed in the course of domestic abuse are prosecuted under a number of offences, such as murder, assault, sexual assault, rape, stalking, property damage, and breaches of Domestic Violence Orders.

However, as data on the relationship between victim and perpetrator is not collected, it is not possible to disaggregate offences committed in a domestic violence context, the report notes.

In her foreword, Senator Ivana Bacik calls for data collection and recording practices to be urgently reformed.

She also notes that the women interviewed for the research “have provided an invaluable insight into the real impact of the law for them and for their children”.

The law on domestic and gender-based violence generally has changed significantly in recent years, largely because of the courageous women who have spoken out about their experiences as victims and survivors and the advocacy by the groups and frontline workers supporting them.

“Their interventions have helped to debunk many of the problematic myths around rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence; and have fed into a change in legal understanding of key concepts like consent.”

Bacik writes that as a result of this advocacy, some “very positive legal changes have recently been introduced” including the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 and the Domestic Violence Act 2018.

“These new laws have provided for improvements in court processes and treatment of victims, as well as creating a new legal definition of ‘consent’ in rape cases and a vital new offence of ‘coercive control’.”

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Órla Ryan

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