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Opinion: ‘Slap on the wrist’ sentences for domestic violence send a message... the wrong message

CEO of Women’s Aid Sarah Benson says the judiciary and other legal professionals need more training on how best to handle domestic violence cases.

Image: Shutterstock/Kamira

THIS WEEK MARIUS Ruckinskas was given a suspended sentence of just 18 months after the Cork Circuit Criminal Court heard that he had brutally assaulted his wife Renata Rucinskeine, and tried to suffocate her.

The court heard that Ruckinskas, who had previously been convicted for murder, struck his wife, tore clumps of hair out of her head and pulled her eyelash extensions off in their home in Cork on New Year’s Day 2020.

It was a sustained assault that lasted between two and three hours. When Gardaí arrived Renata was in a visibly distressed state with a broken leg and arm, and clumps of her hair falling out.

Even accounting for 12 months’ time served, this short suspended sentence is completely inadequate in light of the severe physical injuries, attempt to smother, and the psychological distress suffered by Renata Rucinskeine.

The outcome of this case echoes the findings of the Women’s Aid 2019 Report ‘Unheard and Uncounted’ which details the failures of the criminal justice system to protect victims/survivors of crimes committed by current or former partners. The report was directly informed by the lived experience of some of the thousands of women whom we see first-hand as a leading national frontline domestic violence support service.

Prevalence of violence

Extreme forms of violence are occurring frequently in the context of both current and former intimate relationships across Ireland every day. The impacts of domestic violence and abuse are wide-ranging and severe.

There can be significant long term impacts such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and suicide, hyper-vigilance and being isolated from colleagues, friends and family. As a result of the abuse, many women then find themselves involved in lengthy legal proceedings within the criminal courts where the process is inconsistent, long, draining, slow and emotional.

Even though we lack, even the most basic information about domestic violence-related cases that come before the criminal courts in Ireland, we know that – despite some welcome reforms in recent years – there are still low reporting rates, high attrition levels and low conviction rates in relation to crimes committed in the context of an abusive relationship.

The Research we conducted in 2019, showed that many women who have been engaged with the criminal justice system due to abuse are dissatisfied with both the process and the outcome. Most did not feel any safer or feel any real sense of justice as a result of this engagement. The majority reported that, even when a conviction and sentence was handed down, they would not, or were unsure if they would, go through the process again.

While we do now have the criminal offence of Coercive Control in the Domestic Violence Act 2018, in Ireland most criminal cases perpetrated by current or former partners are still dealt with and prosecuted under a number of separate offences such as assault, sexual assault, rape, stalking, criminal damage. There is good reason for this as coercive control has a maximum penalty of five years in jail and some of these crimes hold higher potential sentences.

Judging these crimes in context

However, this system is based on an examination of single incidents perpetrated at a fixed point in time. It does little to give context to these crimes, which is often where the victim/survivor has been subjected to multiple incidents of violence and abuse, often over long periods of time causing a cumulative effect of acute stress, pain and isolation. This means, in effect, that the fundamentals of intimate partner violence commonly go unrecognised and unexamined.

Coercive control is the persistent pattern of controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour that traps women in relationships and makes it impossible or dangerous to leave. The impacts of coercive control are serious and cause alarm and distress. They are severely damaging to a woman’s physical and emotional wellbeing. We have seen some welcome cases where there have been multiple charges against perpetrators which included stand-alone charges and convictions for coercive control. However, much more is still required to give those who suffer greater confidence in the courts.

The judiciary, and all other actors in the legal system, need to be provided with training and sentencing guidelines in relation to domestic violence including coercive control, as a defining feature of an abusive relationship. This is vital to enable the legal system better understand the lived experience of the victim/survivor. Sentences should reflect the devastating impacts that living with coercive control can have in a woman’s life.

Even if there are no charges of coercive control, it should be considered an aggravating factor when serious crimes, such as those perpetrated by Marius Ruckinskas, are committed by the person who is supposed to love, and respect their partner. It is an egregious breach of trust, and sentencing should reflect this.

It is essential that the response of the criminal justice system to domestic violence survivors vindicates their right to justice and ensures their protection and safety. Handing down ‘slap on the wrist’ sentences sends a message. The wrong message. It communicates to victims that, even if you come forward, there is no guarantee that you will be protected or that the perpetrator will be held accountable for their actions.

To perpetrators, it minimises and therefore excuses crimes that are serious and potentially fatal. It’s time now for the criminal justice system to adapt and to hold those who perpetrate domestic violence to account rather than forcing victims to settle for a system that is not doing them justice.

You can read the full ‘Unheard and Uncounted’ Report here. If you or someone you know has been affected by the issue raised in this article, contact the Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline on 1800 341 900 or visit the Women’s Aid website at womensaid.ie or call the male advice line on 1800 816 588.

Sarah Benson is the CEO of Women’s Aid.

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