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25 years of divorce in Ireland: ‘Courts can prolong abuse for victims who desperately want to split’

Women’s Aid flags system failures and ‘financial control’ tricks used by abusers


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The Irish courts system can be used to further “abuse” domestic violence survivors who are going through a divorce, Women’s Aid has warned.

Post separation, the use of the courts and the District Courts for abuse would not be uncommon,” Eavan Ward, the services manager at Women’s Aid, said.

“Abusers can breach maintenance, accuse the woman of breaching access, and that can tend to go on a long time.

“Court hearings can be adjourned because the abusive partner hasn’t filed appropriate documents.”

There is also a financial element to the purposeful wrangling.

“Multiple adjournments can increase the costs. That can be a tactic that’s used, we have found, to deliberately hold up the process,” Ms Ward added.

“In the same vein, men can go underground and not be found, so papers can’t be served on them. Obviously then, that stops the process in its tracks.”

She said some abuse survivors can struggle to access legal aid, and the time that the divorce process can take can leave mothers without access to maintenance for months.

“Denise”, not her real name, is currently going through the process of divorcing her abusive partner and father of her four children.

The victim, who is from a central African country, came to Ireland with her former husband and their three children over a decade ago.

Eight years ago, when she was five months pregnant, her partner started to become abusive and controlling. After spying on Denise’s laptop, he found correspondence she had sent to Women’s Aid and he kicked her and his three children out.

Denise went to a refuge, where she stayed until she had her fourth child. Her husband initiated a divorce in 2019 but the process has been slow.

Denise said she is relying on legal aid, and while she is grateful for it the system remains a problem and she is eager for the process to end so that she can sever ties with her abuser.

“I feel like it’s just hanging over my head. Obviously, every time I talk about it is upsetting. I get quite emotional. I hate seeing him in court. I know that talking about all this will mean reliving all these painful experiences,” she said.

“Last time I saw him in court was when I was asking for full custody, because I can’t even get passports for the children. I had to walk out of the courtroom. I don’t want to be in the same room with him.

“Not wanting to see him is the only thing preventing me from going on my own (representing herself) to court to get this done and dusted. It’s tricky. I can express myself in English, but legal stuff is just something that people study for so many years and it’s so technical.”

Law firm Catherine Allison & Company said it has seen a rise in cases where women who are the victims of coercive abuse and control have come forward to seek assistance with their divorce and “it is of note that a lot of these women are over 50 and no longer have children who are dependent”.

“We believe this rise in these types of divorce cases is a direct result from added pressure and tensions during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Letitia Grace, a senior legal executive at the Dundalk firm, said.

“During the pandemic women and their children were experiencing severe coercive control, financial control, domestic and/or emotional abuse.”

Ms Grace added that information on this issue became “more widely available through social media, TV and radio” during the pandemic.

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