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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Fine Gael
Justice Minister 'I have seen many women shake with fear of not being believed by a Garda or a court'
Charlie Flanagan writes about why he believes the Domestic Violence Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before the Oireachtas.

A HOME SHOULD be a haven. And for most of us thankfully, it is. It’s where we feel safe, where we feel loved, and where we find refuge – should we need it – from the freneticism of daily life.

I believe that is why we find it particularly abhorrent that for some, not only is their home not their refuge, but it is actually a place from which they need to take refuge.

Domestic violence is a heinous crime. The idea of attacking someone in the very place in which they should feel most safe, is so horrendous that it is difficult to take on board that it is happening, that we need legislation of the type which passed last week.

But need it we do, which is why, when the Domestic Violence Act passed its final Oireachtas stage in the Seanad, I hailed it as a ‘landmark bill’. I said too that I believed it was one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before the Oireachtas last year.

It was also one of the most collaborative. Collaboration is not always a hallmark of the political system, but in this case, my predecessor Frances Fitzgerald, my colleague Minister of State David Stanton (both of whom were hugely involved) and I enjoyed considerable engagement with politicians on all sides in both the Dáil and Seanad, as well as with NGOs. Indeed some of the most innovative aspects came from that collaboration and cooperation.

One of those innovative aspects is to do with the concept of non-violent coercive control.

For too long, domestic violence has been understood in law as physical abuse only.

Indeed, in my time as a public representative, I have seen many women shake with fear of not being believed by a Garda or a court, because they bore no physical marks of assault.

But they were certainly still victims.

And with this new law, the State is sending a message to perpetrators of domestic violence that non-violent coercive control in an intimate relationship is now a criminal offence.

After all, the effect of it may be as harmful as physical abuse, and it is a betrayal of the unique trust associated with an intimate relationship.

And while it may be challenging for gardaí, explicitly capturing it in legislation will also help victims identify that the behaviour they are suffering is wrong, encourage them to report it and cause perpetrators to rethink their controlling behaviour.

Another important aspect of the new regime is that an intimate relationship between perpetrator and victim should now be regarded as an aggravating factor in sentencing for violent offences including manslaughter and sexual offences.

This again sends a message that the State will not tolerate the appalling breaches of trust committed by one partner against another in an intimate relationship.

And there are other elements too, which will ensure the Act delivers on its central purpose of reforming the law so that it provides better protection for victims. To give just a few examples:

  • A relationship will not have to be ‘committed’ in order for a person to apply for a domestic violence order
  • Safety orders and protection orders will be available to persons in intimate relationships even if they are not cohabiting
  • Victims of domestic violence who live with, or are parents of, the adult perpetrator will be able to apply for an emergency barring order
  • When making an order, courts will be able to prohibit a perpetrator from communicating electronically with the victim, and
  • Victims will be able to bring a friend, family member or support worker into court to support them during proceedings.

Important and strong provisions are now in place.

But they can only be there for those who come forward.

In saying that, I would like finally to make a point about those who don’t. Because those who are afraid or who suffer in silence, need help and support too. That is why I welcome the ‘What would you do?’ campaign.

Supported by my department’s agency Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, the campaign’s aim is to deepen awareness of the evil which is domestic violence.

We all need to become conscious of what may be in our midst so that, should we come across it, we at least ask ourselves ‘What would I do?’

It’s complicated, of course, and there is certainly no single simple answer, but opening our eyes to what may be happening around us – so that we can ask how we might offer help or support – is at least a start.

I hope the Bill meanwhile will encourage those who are victims of domestic violence to seek help, in the knowledge that we are doing all we can to make that help effective.

The enactment of it is a key part of the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence and it also allows us to proceed further on the important issue of ratifying the Istanbul Convention. I want to see the Convention ratified as a priority and I am delighted to have seen this, almost final part of the jigsaw be put in place.

Charlie Flanagan is the Minister for Justice. The Domestic Violence Bill was signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on Tuesday, 8 May. 

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