Editorial: 'Law on 'coercive control' welcome'
A new law to improve protections available to victims of domestic violence under both the civil and criminal law has been introduced, with a creation of a new offence of "coercive control". The Domestic Violence Act 2018, while overdue, is to be welcomed, particularly the new offence which, in the words of Minister for Justice, Charles Flanagan, "recognises that the effect of non-violent control in an intimate relationship can be as harmful to victims as physical abuse because it is an abuse of the unique trust associated with an intimate relationship".
In cases of persistent domestic abuse, the power and control exercised over the victim has been figuratively described as 'replacing the soul of the victim with the soul of the perpetrator'. This is a particularly insidious form of domestic abuse that has been allowed to silently fester in this country for far too long - generations indeed.
As the former Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald has also said domestic violence and sexual violence are pernicious evils which tend to undermine the core humanity of their victims. Even a few victims of these complex evils would be a few too many. Unfortunately domestic and sexual violence is frighteningly pervasive. However, it would be naive to think that the relatively blunt instruments available to public policy can abolish the desire to inflict pain and to exercise power and control from the hearts of perpetrators. To its credit, the Government with the support of cross-party and Independent TDs in Dail Eireann, are taking action to do what is within their ability to tackle these issues. This is a problem which must be addressed at a wider societal level, however. A national advertising campaign - What Would You do? - has been effective in highlighting an issue which affects over 300,000 people in Ireland, mostly women but also men, who have been severely abused by a partner at some point in their lives. The available data, however, suggests that more domestic and sexual violence and more physically damaging domestic violence occur against women. Because of the complexity of relationships in this area, data is kept under review. Significant departures from trend are highlighted and reviewed and suggested causes are explored. That is also to be welcomed. That said, there is strong evidence to suggest that domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is under-reported in Ireland and, indeed, that Garda statistics in this area are not as robust as they need to be. For example, a recent survey found that 69pc of women in Ireland reported controlling behaviour by their partner, with 28pc feeling afraid of their previous or current partner.
The role to be played by society as a whole in confronting this issue cannot be overstated. Another important provision of the new law is intended to ensure that an intimate relationship between victim and perpetrator must be regarded as an aggravating factor in sentencing for a wide range of offences. This new provision is intended to send a message that society will no longer tolerate the appalling breach of trust committed by one partner against the other in an intimate context.
The Domestic Violence Act goes some of the way towards addressing the needs of victims, holding perpetrators to account and attempting to change societal attitudes, but there should be no rest until society routinely knows the answer to the question 'what would you do'?