The position of the perpetrator in Irish Domestic Violence law
By Aislinn Collins
Women’s Aid has defined domestic violence as “one person trying to control and assert power over their partner in an intimate relationship”. It can manifest as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or financial abuse. Domestic violence is something that is experienced universally, every day of the week, in every town and country all over the world and is experienced by both women and men. There is an emerging awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence in Ireland but there remains an absence of a clear understanding as to what behavior constitutes this malaise. The general consensus is that domestic violence manifests itself in three forms: physical, sexual and psychological. Seeking an effective and sustainable solution to the problem of violence between intimate partners involves comprehensively recognizing the issue and addressing it is a problem. It is clear that this cannot be successfully undertaken without including concerted efforts to engage violent people. Seeking a solution must address the source of the problem which is violence, and to eliminate the consequences of such acts of violence, i.e. the harm caused to others in the relationship such as a partner or children.
Safe Ireland is a very valuable support service for women experiencing domestic violence in Ireland and provides information in respect of the 40+ domestic violence services in Ireland. Of these, 21 provide 24hour emergency accommodation. Domestic Violence Support Services have a wide range of skills and experience to respond to a range of (mostly) women and children’s needs, including supporting women with ways to protect themselves from their partner/ex partner; child related needs such as managing custody and access of children as well as understanding the impact of the violence on children; practical needs such as legal protection and emotional support relating to violence, and ongoing decision making. While these support services are hugely beneficial, budget cuts to victim support services are making it increasingly difficult to support victims of domestic violence. Over the past 7 years, government funding to Women’s Aid has fallen by 31%, notwithstanding that demand for the Women’s Aid Dublin-based one to one service has increased by a shocking 40% since the beginning of the recession. It is imperative that victims can access all the support they need but it is becoming increasingly difficult in light of these funding cuts.
Given the ongoing inadequate levels of funding for victim support services, it is hardly surprising that direct work with perpetrators of domestic violence is a relatively unexplored intervention. Traditionally attempts to intervene in domestic violence have understandably focused on the provision of support for abused women and their children. In recent years, however, there has been a shift to include a call for a limited focus on the person who has perpetrated the abuse, to include more than mere punishment. A shift of perspective in thinking has begun around both the cause of domestic abuse and the benefits of intervention. At its most basic, real safety for partners and children needs to include the violent person being made responsible for their violence, accountable for change and to engage them in the kinds of work that might serve to limit and ultimately stop them from violating their current partner or indeed those in future relationships. In Ireland, there are two main programmes providing services to perpetrators. Men Ending Domestic Abuse (MEND) was set up as a regional initiative under the auspices of the South East Regional Planning Committee on Violence Against Women in response to the Report of the Task Force on Violence against Women which was published in April 1997. Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE) is a structured group work programme that is part funded by COSC, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, for men who are, or have been violent in an intimate relationship. Both programmes are designed to help the participants to take responsibility for their violent behavior and to learn to behave differently in the future.
The Domestic Violence Bill 2015 was introduced last year. It is hugely important as for the first time, Irish law recognises the need for intervention with the perpetrator. The Bill is currently at the Heads of Bill stage therefore it is still very much in draft form and thus subject to change. Intervention for perpetrators is included in Head 19 which seeks to introduce a culture whereby courts can refer perpetrators of domestic violence to dedicated perpetrator programmes. This provides that on the granting of a safety or barring order the court may direct the perpetrator to engage with services to address the issues which may have contributed to the perpetrators behaviour. Unfortunately whilst this is worthwhile, there is no indication as to why or when a judge may decide to direct a perpetrator to engage with the services that may be available. Additionally, the Bill provides that the court may consider the engagement of the perpetrator with any services and the outcome of such engagement when hearing any appeal. It is unclear if the fact of attendance will be regarded as enough or if information on the level and nature of participation of the perpetrator is needed. This may cause a conflict especially due to the confidential nature of such an engagement.
It is important to note the significance of the recent 2015 Bill and its attempt to better support victims of domestic violence, whilst also recognizing the need for intervention with the perpetrators and requiring them to address their abusive behavior. It is imperative that more funding is given to support services for women but programmes for perpetrators would be a valuable resource in attempts to diminish the scourge of domestic violence.