Our justice system needs more vision

January 22nd, 2022 5:10 PM

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IT is just days since Ashling Murphy was laid to rest amid an outpouring of grief and sadness from what seemed like the entire nation.

It has been said by so many women this week that Ashling could have represented any one of them in today’s Ireland.

Several words and phrases have been used liberally in debates in the media and online all week, like ‘turning point’ and ‘watershed’ and ‘not all men’ or ‘yes, all men’ with several commentators clamouring to make the definitive statement on the horrific tragedy. It is difficult to know what makes, or might make, this killing any different from those of the several hundred women murdered in very recent decades.

Irish organisation Women’s Aid started its sinister-sounding ‘femicide watch’ in 1996, and this week it said that since then, 244 women have been killed in Ireland under violent circumstances.

That’s a frightening figure representing innocent lives lost, and how many thousands of people have been directly affected by that shocking murder toll?

It seemed everywhere you turned this week there were comments about how we can ‘fix’ a society in which women are trained to be fearful, from a very early age. From what women wear, to how they behave, to how they speak and how they ‘hold’ themselves, they have always been taught that these elements can have a bearing on their safety. Why has it taken society so long to realise that the issue is not with how women behave or look, but how men – because it is mostly men who perpetrate these heinous crimes – behave towards women?

In all of the debates about educating men, and making society a safer place, there has been very little comment on the punishments for these crimes. Our society has always been based on the premise that the punishment should fit the crime – so, conversely, if a crime is not punished, then is it a crime at all?

For many women, observing the justice system in this country, and its treatment of both victims and survivors of crimes against women, it would seem the system often does not treat these crimes with the importance they deserve.

Time and time again we see perpetrators of various serious crimes against women walking free, getting suspended sentences, or menial ones, and that gives out the message to women that harming them is not a serious offence, or that reporting these crimes is a waste of time and the huge amount of effort and pain involved. We see men who are taken to court on domestic violence crimes walking free or getting bail and we very often see them intimidating their victims in the interim or repeating an earlier crime while awaiting trial. And it is not just the accused who need to be taken to task.

We often see members of the legal profession making unsavoury comments about victims, about their clothes, their behaviour, their past relationships, or simply glib remarks that demean the seriousness of the charges. And hear horror stories of how victims are treated in the environs of a courthouse – regularly having to sit in very close proximity to their abuser, or having to pass them entering and leaving the courtroom.

This country does not have a good track record in the treatment of women. But when it comes to the justice system, it is particularly poor. For many decades the legal profession was dominated by men – some may say it still is.

It is particularly shocking to note that judges have only begun to get formal training in ethics, unconscious bias and improving the courtroom experience of vulnerable witnesses, since July 2020. Until then, no such training existed.

But the best way to ensure that the concerns of women victims of violence are heard and acted upon is to have more female representation in the legal profession – and at the highest level.

We have a female Minister for Justice and this week Helen McEntee promised widescale reform of the law. But we have heard similar promises it the past from her predecessors.

The name Ashling means ‘vision’, or a ‘dream’.

Now is the time to ensure that, while we wait for society to educate its men on better behaviour around women, our legal system has the vision to lead the way with a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to crimes such as that perpetrated on Ashling.

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