It has become evident in our practice that each client we deal with in Amber Womens Refuge has a very difficult and challenging experience if they decide to enter the world of the legal system.
Taking into consideration what a woman from our service has already experienced due to the exposure of domestic abuse at the hands of their perpetrator, they at times have no choice but to use the legal system to try free themselves from the violence and coercive control. It therefore needs to be a safe and accessible process for any person to try to gain justice.
There is also a percentage of women that choose not to enter the legal system due to experiencing it in the past and who have not felt protected due to outcomes that do not fully maintain the family’s safety. For example, within the Travelling Community there is a sense, that has been relayed to us, that if they did attend court, were successful and received a Safety or Barring Order would they be fully supported by Gardai to use the Law? Some women would feel the orders made them more vulnerable and exposed to the violence, as it is known by their perpetrator that they went to court. The said perpetrator can also locate them as the address of the victim is named on the paperwork issued.
It is beginning to have a similar pattern for some of our clients in Amber Womens Refuge, where the system that is used is flawed and difficult for the clients to access the courts.
Speaking from the viewpoint of a front-line practitioner on behalf of women needing support and court orders, the ongoing and repetitive feedback that we receive from the woman is that they are made feel inadequate, they are not listened to and they have no specific amount of time allocated with solicitors in preparation for the court date. They can find it difficult to get solicitors to take on their case. Phone calls not being answered to, inappropriate and derogatory comments made, and at times have left our clients in tears and feeling deflated and confused about how to continue to fight for their freedom.
Also, women have reported to us of misinformation received by their solicitors that is crucial to their evidence. This is very hard to understand why this happens.
One solicitor informed a client that they only get paid a small amount via legal aid and they do not have the time to invest in the case. This proves that you will receive a limited amount of support if your income is low, exposing more vulnerability for our clients who are trapped in toxic relationships.
It asks the question: is there inequality and lack of fairness within the court system? It seems to be if you have the funds to reach for a higher more ‘well-known’ barrister or solicitor within the field you just might be successful.
Many women within our service have gained access via the Legal Aid Board, however, their perpetrators have secured themselves a better deal due to accessibility of finance and there is a level of superiority and power and control within the courtroom, much like the experience in our service user’s case that the women have dealt with in their lives. For example, the financial control and manipulation experienced whilst living with the perpetrator.
Many women in our service feel their voices are not heard, they did not feel supported in court by their solicitor. The whole experience is misunderstood and as all research shows coercive control is not a single-handed incident and indeed very difficult to prove.
It is an accumulation of insidious experiences and therefore needs time and understanding and for the legal team to fully investigate the client’s experiences. It requires a specialized knowledgeable individual to advocate on their behalf to describe the small sinister behaviours. For example, one woman once stated, “how do I tell the courts that he has a particular behaviour of humming just before an outburst”? How do I explain the negative and frightening tensions and energies that surround me whilst living with him? This takes time and dedication from the legal team to ensure the correct information is explained to the judge.
Perhaps a better solution is coming, with the Irish Times only recently reporting that there are at least 50 coercive control cases currently under investigation. Again, speaking from the front-line and trying to advocate for our clients and what they have reported to us it is an unfair and disheartening experience.
Perhaps if one solicitor associated within the legal system from one area could be assigned to each service within their county for some continuity and consistency and trust, to ensure that each client is getting the best possible support to fight their case. It needs to be changed, our service cannot work alone, it requires a multidisciplinary team to support a client to break free from violence.