Victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable people at risk of violence will gain an additional layer of protection following agreement in Brussels this week, writes the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter TD.
At the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on Friday, 8 March, 2013 Ministers are expected to formally approve a deal reached with the European Parliament on the European Protection Order. This new EU Regulation will mean that a protection order, for example, a barring or safety order obtained by a victim of domestic violence will be recognised and enforceable in all other EU Member States.
This measure is part of the European Commission’s victims’ package putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice agenda of the EU. For example, it will enable victims of domestic violence to travel around Europe in safety, sometimes for the first time in many years. To put it in context, a woman who has been the victim of an abusive partner and found the courage to seek help and protection from the authorities will now be able to enjoy the safety of that protection in other Member States. This would give her the freedom to go on holiday or visit family abroad, or even relocate without further risking her safety or having to go through additional court processes in other countries. It is difficult to overstate the difference that this measure can and will make it the lives of some women, and also men, and their families.
The protection of victims and vulnerable persons in our society is an issue which has long been of particular interest to me, not only as a Parliamentarian, but also as a legal practitioner and author. Here in Ireland, even before my appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence I was very pleased to be instrumental in securing a commitment to strengthen support for victims of crime in the Programme for Government and since then I have worked to deliver on those commitments. Changes have already been made to the Domestic Violence Acts which extend the protections available under the Acts to same sex cohabiting couples and to couples who have a child together but have never cohabited.
The European Protection Order (civil) forms just one element of a package of measures targeted at supporting the victims of crime.
In line with the Programme for Government, it is my intention during the period in office of the Government to publish a Bill containing further necessary reforms and consolidating our domestic violence law in a single Act of the Oireachtas.
I am very pleased to see these issues taking centre stage at a European level too. The European Protection Order (civil) forms just one element of a package of measures targeted at supporting the victims of crime. This measure, which focuses on protection orders in civil matters, is complimentary to a similar measure targeting protection orders in criminal matters, both of which should come into effect across the EU within the next two years.
Last December another element of the victims’ package, a Directive establishing the minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime was adopted at EU level. That Directive provides a wide range of measures to support victims of crime and I welcome its comprehensive nature. Work is now underway to prepare a Victim Rights Bill in Irish law. Upon enactment the law will fulfil the requirements of the EU Directive and implement the commitment contained in the Program for Government to enact such a measure.
I am very pleased to have secured Ireland’s participation in all of these victims’ measures as I recognise not only the importance of providing support and legal protection for victims of crime but also of sending a clear message that all crime and, in particular, domestic violence, harassment and intimidation are unacceptable in Ireland and throughout the EU.
The protection of human rights, democratic values and the rule of law are among the foundations of the EU.
Another important development in protecting victims of crime is the European Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings adopted by the European Commission last June. The strategy is a set of concrete and practical measures to be implemented over the next five years that will support and complement the implementation of EU legislation on trafficking in human beings. The Irish Presidency will bring forward an initiative to support victims in this area which I intend will form part of Council Conclusions at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in June.
The European Union has a commendable record on human rights. The protection of human rights, democratic values and the rule of law are among the foundations of the EU. But many improvements are still needed to ensure that everyone can benefit from, and enjoy, the rights and freedoms which most of us take for granted.
In addition to the range of proposals aimed at supporting victims of crime, there are other areas where the EU must continue to improve rights and the rule of law. How we treat those suspected or accused of crimes, particularly before anything has been proved against them, is a notable measure of how effectively a society protects people’s rights and upholds the rule of law. Those suspected and accused of crime are frequently from disadvantaged backgrounds and from minority or vulnerable groups in society.
In 2009 the Justice and Home Affairs Council adopted a roadmap on procedural rights. The aim of the roadmap is to establish common minimum standards of procedural rights in criminal proceedings to ensure that the basic rights of suspects and accused persons are sufficiently protected. The roadmap set out six priority issues for action. Two of the proposed measures, Directives on the right to interpretation and translation and on the right to information have already been negotiated and adopted at European level. The Irish Presidency is currently leading negotiations for the Council on the proposed Directive on access to a lawyer. This measure, when adopted, will ensure that a suspected or accused person has access to a lawyer upon arrest and the right to communicate with a third person. The Council agreed a general approach to this proposal last June and I am hopeful that the Irish Presidency will successfully conclude negotiations with the European Parliament on this important initiative.
The agreement reached on the European Protection Order (civil) is a valuable step on a long journey which I hope will ultimately lead to truly free and equal society.
The next measure which forms part of the procedural rights roadmap is expected to be published by the European Commission in the coming months. The aim of this anticipated proposal will be to establish special safeguards in criminal proceedings for suspected or accused persons who are vulnerable or who cannot fully understand the proceedings. I look forward to the publication of this initiative.
The agreement reached on the European Protection Order (civil) is a valuable step on a long journey which I hope will ultimately lead to truly free and equal society. Each one of the many legislative and other initiatives at Irish and at European level will bring benefits, enhanced rights and greater protection to people in need of those supports. Such issues have long been a priority for me personally and, in Ireland’s role as EU Presidency, I will ensure that they also remain a priority for the European Union.