Topical Issues Arising Under Irish Family Law, Particularly in Relation to the Withholding of Information Bill 11 July 2012, Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence

A Ceann Chomhairle,

The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on offences against children and vulnerable persons) Bill is currently under consideration by this House. It is to be considered at report and final stages tomorrow.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to ensure that there is an obligation on persons who have knowledge of all serious offences, including sexual offences against children or vulnerable adults to inform the Gardaí. In drafting the Bill I also have to be very mindful of the fact that the balance of evidence suggests that the majority of abuse of children or vulnerable adults takes place in the person’s own home.  This Bill applies to all persons, to all organisations and to all sectors of society.  It is very important that we produce legislation that affords protection from abuse to children or vulnerable persons, in any scenario or in any location. That is what this Bill is about.    

It also must be borne in mind that existing provisions in the criminal law for the protection of children continue to apply.  This includes section 176 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 which makes it an offence for a person with authority or control over a child, such as a parent, to intentionally or recklessly endanger a child by causing or permitting a child to be placed or left in a situation which creates a substantial risk to the child of being a victim of serious harm or sexual abuse.  I therefore do not believe that the Bill significantly alters the responsibilities of a parent under the law. 

However, the Bill also establishes some limited defences for persons such as a parent or guardian or medical professional who is acting in the interests of the health and well-being of the child or vulnerable person. A person who does not report an offence, at the request of the victim, also has a legitimate defence.  The Bill also includes a defence of "reasonable excuse". This provision would cater for the type of situation referred to by Deputy Mitchell O’Connor where a parent may also be a victim of violence and may be too frightened and intimidated by a violent partner to go to the Gardaí. 

The Members of this House will be aware that this Bill is one element of a suite of legislation to protect children and vulnerable persons to which the Government is committed, namely the Children First Bill and the National Vetting Bureau Bill. 

I agree with Deputy Mitchell O’Connor’s comments in regard to the Dolphin House Support and Referral Service.  This is a free and confidential drop-in service for those experiencing domestic violence. I have recently visited the project and it is both an excellent and innovative project which demonstrates how the state sector can work in tandem with the voluntary sector in providing appropriate services to victims of domestic abuse. I am pleased to note that AMEN, the group that assists men experiencing domestic violence, also provides support through the Dolphin House project.

In protecting adult and child victims of domestic violence I believe that recent changes to the Domestic Violence Act, 1996 and 2002, have enhanced the protections afforded by the Act.  I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to bring these amendments forward and to see that they have been utilised.  I am also pleased to say that I have instructed Cosc and other officials in my department to develop proposals to amend the law further in respect of domestic violence, in line with a commitment in the programme for Government.

Deputy Mitchell O’Connor also raised the role of the Probation Services.  Their role is to work with offenders to challenge and change their behaviour and make good the harm done by their offending.

Historically, the Probation Service as the Probation and Welfare Service did play a role providing reports to the District Courts in respect of applications for custody and access. 

However, the involvement of the Service in family law cases was unfortunately  discontinued some years ago and as a consequence  there has been, for too many years, an absence of the supports required by the District Courts to assist in addressing child welfare issues upon relationships breaking down.  There are also no adequate support services provided to the Circuit or High Court in this area. The Programme for Government contains a commitment to the establishment of a unified system of family courts which will require the type of support services that are presently available to the Family Court in Australia. At a time of limited resources I am conscious that it will be difficult to provide for the support services required. However, I can inform the Deputy that the Government is committed to the establishment of Family Courts and to the holding of the Referendum necessary to facilitate their establishment. Preliminary work has already been undertaken in this area and I expect shortly to be making a detailed announcement. 

I would like to thank Deputy Mitchell O’Connor for raising these important issues. I can assure the House that they will continue to be addressed by this Government.