Domestic violence is not a crime

One weird trick to get domestic violence data for Ireland

In Ireland, domestic violence is not considered a specific offense, which means there is no law against it. The rationale is that the acts that comprise domestic violence are already criminal, and therefore we don’t need it, and besides, it’s too complex to actually prosecute. Some, but not all of that is true, since the terror of living with abuse is a pattern, and individual incidents, even where they are technically criminal, may in themselves be too small for police to take seriously.

The title of this piece is a statement of fact, not a tricky twist just to get your attention. But I hope it got your attention because it is true: domestic violence is not illegal.

Since 90 per cent of the world’s data has been created in the last five years, what we choose to collect, store, and act on is accelerating at a previously unthinkable pace, and our omissions are more glaring by the day.

That one weird trick to get the data is to make domestic violence an actual, honest-to-god crime. It’s not an endpoint of a process because it won’t do as much as we’d like to think it will, but it’s a starting point we need to get to as soon as possible.

We need to stop assuming reasonableness

It was only in 2015 that Gardaí started recording whether an incident was related to domestic violence, which means that we have almost no data that can be compared with any other data, the data we have is not really crime data (it’s information related to an incident, but not necessarily a crime) and it means that we can’t design data-driven services to prevent women from being killed by their partners. Not prevention, not risk assessment, not consequences for offenders, not protection, not things that will help women rebuild their lives in safety, rather than live in hiding.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland has emphasized the need to address the data crisis in violence against women, even at the most basic level. NWCI director Orla O’Connor points out that as a signatory to the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, Ireland needs to meet a gold standard on data collection to be in line with the Council of Europe’s goals, and the failure to include it as a specific offense in the bill really matters. “There is an added complication that it’s not a crime in its own right,” she says. “It makes recording of it more difficult.”

The introduction of a new Domestic Violence Bill offered the opportunity to include it as a specific offence, following the example of England and Scotland, and there were multiple strong recommendations, including from the NCWI, but the bill does not do this.

Most of us probably presume that there’s some database somewhere that contains information about domestic violence, and that at worst, maybe it’s a mess of unstructured information or, worst of all, it’s in a bunch of photocopies of photocopied PDFs. Or that you might have to FOI it. It’s understandable to think this way because, a reasonable person would assume a thing that happens to anywhere between one and four women and one and seven (we don’t know because, well, see above), that has no risk factor based on race, class or background (for abuser or victim), is proactively and regularly logged and tracked.

But the first step in reshaping a system comprised almost entirely of points of failure is to stop projecting reasonableness onto it.

Points are useless without the pattern

Domestic violence is generally addressed by family courts, and yes, where there are specific injuries that are already crimes, they might enter into the criminal court system, if the Director of Public Prosecutions considers them serious enough. If the accused pleads guilty, as they so often do (they get a lighter sentence for not wasting the court’s time), it is not allowable to even mention the words ‘domestic violence’ during a sentencing. You can only address the single criminal act in question, and unless there are previous convictions, it can’t be connected to any other behaviors.

Even in court data, if there is a conviction and a sentence, it won’t be recorded as related to domestic violence because domestic violence was not the crime in question — so even if you could get that data, it wouldn’t help much.

The victim is only a witness to this process. The sentence is decided based on the level of injury considered to have been done to the State, which, in the case of violence against women, is normally very little. This means that the pattern of domestic abuse not only can’t be recognized in any official capacity, but also that the system of handling it in the criminal court is designed to prevent that recognition, propped up by our failure to address why we accept that a man who has proven himself to be a danger to even one individual woman is not seen as a danger to society.

Frontline services and NGOs have always collected their own data, and they do the best they can, but failing to make the pattern of coercive control that comprises domestic abuse a crime means it will be difficult to make things much better for the more than (estimated) 213,000 women in Ireland who are currently or have experienced serious violence from a partner. (Of course, that data is from 2005. We have little idea how the situation has changed since then.)

Almost half of women killed by men’s violence in the last 20 years were killed by a man’s bare hands, and 89 percent of the time by someone known to them. Despite this, it’s only in the past few years that Gardaí have begun recording domestic violence before it becomes lethal, and therefore part of crime data. Making that pattern a crime might not put more violently entitled men in jail (and tbh, this is one of the few crimes I think does deserve actual, custodial jail time), but it will help agencies start figuring out how to hold men accountable in ways that don’t require broken bones, blood, or bodies before action is taken.

Even where there aren’t specific and obvious physically violent instances that could help secure a conviction, the ability to at least record reports for the Central Statistics Office would help government and NGOs design better services for women who need them. It is difficult to secure a conviction, even where there is obvious injury, and making it a crime might not make that easier, but being able to connect, for example, protection order cases (which are held in family court) to criminal ones would help us build a picture that we can start with.

But wait, there’s even less than you think

In 2014, when they started collecting this data, Gardaí recorded 3678 instances of domestic violence, and in 2016 they managed to capture 5988. To compare, in Northern Ireland, with a much smaller population, more than 29,000 instances were recorded in one year. We know that despite the 40% increase over one year, most of the problem remains hidden.

In 2015, Gardaí began recording in the Pulse system whether an incident was related to domestic violence. But the courts service is still paper-based, and even if you want, for example, data on the number of prosecuted assaults by men against women, which could be considered domestic violence indicators, that data isn’t available.

“Bringing together the data is important to answer questions. In the UK, there is an annual crime report that includes domestic violence,” says O’Connor. “It’s mainly police and court data, but it shows the flow. And we have no idea of even how many convictions there are for domestic violence.”

A new family court that will be in place by 2020 offers the chance to build IT systems that can record and link actionable data, but we need to make sure that as we lobby for change, we include things like database design and system specs. How will the data be structured? What will be included? Where and how will incidents be categorized and logged, and will we be able to make use of them to address an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of people, mainly women and children?

Crime or not, bad data systems obfuscate the truth about the impact of coercively controlling men on women’s lives — and we can do better. We have made a deliberate decision not to, up to and including a new bill that will fail to make domestic violence a crime. The EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights believes this. The NCWI has written about how little we really know in an official capacity.

In the future, the data we’ve fed machines will tell the story of who we are, based on what the data collectors decide is important, and it will shape our social and physical landscapes. We hope that through ethically constructed frameworks, we can use that data to build a better world. But how can we do that if we won’t even tell ourselves the truth?