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Dáil statement by Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan TD Domestic abuse in the context of Covid-19

Introductory comments
It is deeply regrettable that domestic abuse and sexual violence are so prevalent in our society that we are discussing these matters in the Dáil. However, as Minister, I welcome the fact that Deputies are here, participating in seeking ways to combat these horrific crimes and to be briefed on the response across the justice sector, particularly during the pandemic where special measures were required.

In the past week, we have seen a number of deeply distressing incidents. We cannot today discuss cases in which Garda investigations are ongoing, at risk of prejudicing any eventual prosecutions. But I will comment briefly on two cases in which the criminal process has concluded.

No-one can fail to have been moved by the tremendous bravery of Philomena Connors, Helen O’Donoghue, Mary Moran, Margaret Hutchinson, Anne O’Reilly, Bridget O’Reilly and Kathleen O’Driscoll, who spoke so powerfully last week following the conviction of their father for a catalogue of abuse against them.

Equally, no-one can doubt the extraordinary resilience of Sonya Lee and her sisters Aisling and Natalie, who have spoken this week of the life-changing impact of the horrific assault for which Sonya’s former partner was recently convicted.

I commend the tremendous strength of these brave women. Their dignified and courageous public comments are a call to action for all of society, to fully address the scourge of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the home - both of which I am addressing today.

And so before we get into more detailed debate, I want to clearly say: Domestic abuse and sexual violence are serious criminal offences. No-one needs to deal with this alone. Ceann Comhairle, if I may, I wish to speak directly to those affected: if you are suffering, please reach out for help. And to anyone with a suspicion or concern that these crimes are occurring, I ask you to please report this to the authorities and help us to hold perpetrators accountable.

Departmental action to address domestic abuse

Combatting domestic abuse and sexual violence is a vitally important part of the National Strategy for Women and Girls and the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence. The Strategy is a living document, which informs the direction that the Government is taking, in partnership with civil society, to tackle these issues.

We have had very significant legislative reform including:
- the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 which introduced a statutory definition of consent;
- the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 which includes provision to protect and inform victims in the criminal justice system; and
- the Domestic Violence Act 2018 which has brought significant change, including creation of the offence of coercive control and improving victims’ access to barring orders.

These laws are monitored by my Department to ensure they are effective and to identify if further changes are required. I have made the combatting of domestic and sexual violence one of my core priorities as Minister. I was well aware, through my engagement with NGOs and victims, that crimes in both areas are under-reported and that a better evidence basis was required to drive forward Government policy in this area. To achieve this, I took a number of actions.
- I asked an independent expert, barrister Tom O’Malley, to chair a Working Group, to examine the adequacy of measures to protect vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, paying particular attention to the important work of NGOs in their own reports on these issues;
- I established an independent study on domestic homicide reviews to inform future legislation here, ensuring we can distil best practice internationally and also to set out the necessary supports for victims of familicide; and
- I brought forward a proposal for another major National Sexual Violence Prevalence Study – or SAVI 2 – and importantly, secured Government agreement that the CSO would undertake this work, facilitating a secure footing for repeat large-scale surveys every decade.

Alongside this work, we are taking steps to try to challenge societal attitudes.
- I published an expanded Victims Charter earlier this year, available on the website and
- My Department has organised a number of awareness raising campaigns. The “What would you do” campaign on domestic abuse ran from 2016 to 2018 and the “No Excuses” campaign on sexual violence and harassment commenced last year and is scheduled to run through 2021.

The results of a recent university survey on consent underscores again the key importance of addressing societal attitudes to sexual violence and my Department is committed to continuing this vital work. And I’d like to acknowledge the work of my colleague, Minister Mitchell O’Connor in this area.

I recognised that the restrictions necessary during the Covid-19 pandemic were going to be incredibly difficult for those at risk of domestic violence and, early on, my Department reached out to our family of agencies to ensure special measures were in place. These include:
• additional funding and supports from my Department and Tusla, to support and allow adaptation of frontline services;
• provision by Minister Doherty of emergency rent supplement for those trying to exit domestic abuse situations during the Covid crisis;
• priority by the Legal Aid Board and Courts Service for domestic abuse and childcare cases, including a Legal Aid Helpline and availability of a Court in each District to hear applications for protection, interim barring and emergency barring orders; and
• the hard-hitting “Still Here” public awareness campaign being run by my Department in partnership with frontline services.

Further information on the organisations involved is on the website and we will shortly be rolling out further activity in this space.

Actions by An Garda Síochána during the pandemic
But I also want to specifically address Garda action at this time.

Gardaí indicate that for the year to date, they have recorded a 24% increase in calls for assistance in respect of domestic abuse incidents.

During the period of the pandemic, the number and rate incidents have been tracked. Study of this data shows that incidents rose steadily until week 19 (the beginning of May) but that there has thankfully been a week on week decline since that time. The situation will of course be kept under review.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, An Garda Síochána had been continuously improving its specialist services. 16 Divisional Protective Services Units, staffed by specially trained officers, have now been rolled out and this process is ongoing and I very much hope to see it completed without further delay.

This specialisation will ensure that when victims of domestic abuse present to Gardaí – at perhaps their most vulnerable moment – they are met with professional and expert assistance. In addition to those specialists, the reality is that all frontline Gardaí encounter and deal with domestic abuse in their work in the community.

Members will be aware that Operation Faoiseamh was designed to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are supported and protected during the pandemic. The first phase involved proactive contact to persons who had been victims in the past, and the second phase has involved a focus on perpetrators and particularly cases of persistent breaches of protection, safety and barring orders under the Domestic Violence Act.

From 1 April to the end of May this year, Gardaí made over 8,200 contacts or attempts to contact recorded victims of domestic abuse. I understand that the feedback from victims was overwhelmingly positive and that these proactive contacts have led to identification of a large number of cases in which further action was warranted. I have also heard this positive feedback from local groups and other stakeholders and I see it as fully consistent with the community engagement and focus of An Garda Síochána.

There is a lesson in that experience about the impact which a proactive approach can have, in this most sensitive of fields.

Finally, I would just clarify that these issues primarily cut across two Departments and Tusla, under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, is responsible for the provision of services and funding for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and has taken a number of initiatives in recent times to augment services.

Concluding comments
Ceann Comhairle,
I have outlined the response of the Justice sector to these issues during the pandemic and, I believe, the cross-agency, interdepartmental approach, which also included valuable input from the community and voluntary sector, has provided a template to build on.

I hope and expect that this will allow us to further strengthen our national response to the issues of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the home. Because while domestic abuse it is not always immediately visible, the fact is that it affects people in all age groups and in all walks of life. And the challenge of preventing and addressing it is similarly a task for the whole of Government and the whole of society.

Thank you