Seanad debates

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill 2021: Committee Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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In line with the Order of the House for today, we must be conscious that this Bill must conclude at 3 p.m.


Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, to delete lines 1 to 4 and substitute the following: “(3) In this section ‘stalking behaviour’ means persistently engaging in one or more than one of the following:
(a) following, watching, pestering or communicating by any means of communication with or about a person;”.

This amendment moves the word "persistently" up one line from subsection 3(a) of the proposed new section 10A to be inserted into the principal Act, so that it applies to subsections 3(a) to 3(h), rather than just subsection 3(a). Subsection 3 deals with the definition of stalking behaviour and gives examples of what that behaviour can look like. The reason for this amendment is that the idea of stalking being an ongoing behaviour is only now found in subsections 3(a) and 3(c), which mention "persistently following" and "repeated, unwanted contact", respectively. The idea behind the amendment is to avoid any possible instance of one-off actions falling under this legislation, which I do not believe is the intention of its proponent.

For example, subsection 3(b) offers an example of stalking behaviour as “purporting to be another person”. If I were to introduce myself as another person, such as the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, it would be unusual, impolite and puzzling, but I am not sure it would qualify as stalking behaviour. We can all appreciate the role that impersonation, particularly online, can play in stalking. My sole worry is that the current wording may criminalise individuals' actions which are not, by default, stalking.

I appreciate that the phrase “repeated and unwanted behaviour” is in subsection 2(a) and that it might be enough to prevent one-off actions being unintentionally within the scope of the legislation. I tabled this amendment to give the proponent of the Bill an opportunity to clarify the interpretation of the legal effect of the Bill as it stands. If subsection 2(a) is sufficient to avoid the scenario I outlined, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for her proposed amendment. She and I had a conversation about this matter earlier, and I understand what she was trying to achieve. I assure her, however, that subsection 2(a) adequately deals with the "repeated" behaviours required. It is a similar word to “persistent”, so I am confident the Bill does what we need it to do, and I hope the Senator’s concerns have been allayed. The Bill was drafted in conjunction with Stalking Ireland and the co-founders of that organisation, Una Ring and Eve McDowell, and they are satisfied that it does what they need it to do. I hope this addresses the concerns raised by Senator Keogan.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank Senator Chambers. I honestly do not want us to have to come back to amend this legislation, as we had to do with the Children Act 2001. That is why I pointed out this potential issue. If the Senator is confident that what is in this legislation is adequate, I will withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 1 agreed to.

Section 2 agreed to.

Question proposed: "That the Title be the Title to the Bill."

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I would like to make some comments, if the Cathaoirleach will grant me some latitude.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. This is a more positive experience than when we took Second Stage of this Bill last September. I am pleased to have brought this legislation to the House to make the offence of stalking a stand-alone crime in Irish law, which is currently not the case. Members will be aware from the contribution I made last September that I believe this Bill is necessary because the current law in this regard is inadequate and insufficient to cover the sinister and serious nature of stalking, as will be borne out by the many stories recounted by victims. It is my strong belief that the word “harassment” does not adequately cover what victims have recounted to me in their stories.

I again credit and pay tribute to the co-founders of Stalking Ireland, Una Ring and Eve McDowell, for their incredible work in bringing this legislation to where it is today. Only last year, they had to go through the ordeal of going to court and facing their attackers. Thankfully, both women got their day in court and the perpetrators are now behind bars. One could suggest that a longer term was warranted. In any event, we are where we are. Following that experience, the women put together a campaign to try to help other victims, draw attention to this crime and be the voice for many who have felt voiceless on this issue.

Throughout last year, we worked together to draft the legislation. At times, we pored over the wording and we are satisfied that it adequately covers the offence. We worked with Dr. Catherine O’Sullivan of University College Cork, UCC, and we also spoke to an adviser who had been with the Law Reform Commission. The Minister will be aware that the Law Reform Commission recommended in 2016 that we consider enacting a stand-alone offence of stalking. Our initial dealings with the Department of Justice were not very positive. Una and Eve have recounted being on many media outlets where statements were sent from the Department of Justice to say the legislation was not needed and that the harassment section was sufficient. Effectively, it was being stated that their campaign was not going to bear the fruit that they wished it to.

Thankfully, I continued working with Una Ring and Eve McDowell, and we persevered in this endeavour. We were committed to seeing this issue through to the end. In last September’s debate, the Department's clearly stated position was that this legislation was not needed. After working on Coco's Law, and having consulted legal advisers and key stakeholders in the criminal justice system, I think the position was that they were all of the view that the harassment legislation was sufficient. It is good that there has been a change of mind, and I have no doubt the Minister played a key role in bringing about that change of mindset in her Department. I also have no doubt that recent tragic events have prompted that period of reflection. That has allowed us to examine our laws and the need to modernise and update them to protect women further.

It is also welcome that we are finally following the example set in other jurisdictions. Looking to those of our neighbours with the same common law judicial system, namely, Scotland, England and Wales, those jurisdictions criminalised stalking and made it a stand-alone criminal offence more than a decade ago. We had hard evidence to show that doing that led to increased reporting and more prosecutions, and the victims got the justice they deserved. With that evidence in hand, it is only right and proper that we move in the same direction.

I commend the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, Naomi Long MLA, who is bringing through legislation on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive to do the same thing there. I was pleased to meet her last year to discuss her plans to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. It is also good that we are moving in tandem with that endeavour so that we will have an all-island approach to this issue. I am sure the Minister and others will agree that if there were to be a different approach north and south of the Border, it would pose difficulties for those living in the Border region. I do not think I need to go into any further detail on that.I am sure the Minister and others will agree that if there were to be a different approach north and south of the Border, it would pose particular difficulties for those living in the Border region. I do not think I need to go into further detail on that.

I welcome the change of view from the Department and look forward to working with the Minister on bringing this legislation to a conclusion. I reiterate my strong and firm belief that a stand-alone offence of stalking is required. The reason and evidence for that is that by having a stand-alone offence, awareness is raised and the number of women, predominantly, who will come forward to report this crime will increase.

Enacting the law in this space is the first step. We need to make sure the law is effective and victims can access the justice system and get the justice they deserve. The Minister will be aware that Una Ring, for example, had a fantastic experience with An Garda Síochána and they were exemplary in the work they did. There is no doubt that had they not been outside her home on the night her attacker came, things could have been different. However, that is not the same for every victim. Eve McDowell had a different experience in Galway when she went to report her ordeal. There will need to be a process of upskilling and training for An Garda Síochána so they are fully briefed on the law we are about to enact and know how to deal with victims.

It is about very simple things. I was talking to a councillor about the need to have privacy when giving a statement on a matter this sensitive and for a special location in the Garda station to which victims can go in private to recount their story. When a victim goes to report this crime, there should be some sort of continuity in terms of the garda he or she deals with. One thing Eve found difficult was that every time she went to make a complaint and tell the gardaí what was happening to her, she spoke to a different garda. That can happen but it meant she had to retell her story over and over from the beginning. That retraumatises the individual.

We will need a suite of measures in terms of implementing the law, how it is to work in practice and the experience of victims. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that we pencil in a date two or three years down the line to review the operation of the law, how it is working for victims and how the justice system is working.

I relay the words of thanks from Una and Eve to all Members of this House for supporting the legislation, supporting me in bringing this Bill and showing the work the Seanad can do collectively on cross-party legislation like this. I thank the Minister for her understanding and for meeting with Una and Eve the last evening. They appreciated that engagement, as did I. I thank the Minister for committing to bringing through legislation to criminalise stalking. It will be a positive step and I look forward to concluding this Bill in two weeks' time, 9 February, when we will proceed to Report and Final Stages and pass this Private Members' Bill in the Seanad. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his latitude in allowing me to make a few remarks.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I commend my colleague, Senator Chambers, on her work on this issue, the depth of research she conducted and her steely determination to see this through. She knew there were two women who were wronged and was determined to see that through. I acknowledge her determination and that of the two ladies concerned who went through the system and then came forward in an effort to protect other women who may have been through the same process. We have to acknowledge their bravery in coming forward with an unselfish view to ensuring others will be protected.

While the Department initially may have been pushing back on this legislation, I am glad it has shown flexibility. I have no doubt the Minister was central to that flexibility and to coming forward and supporting this legislation. I hope that flexibility will be extended to a number of other areas, which I may discuss with the Minister on another day.

Today is a good day and a step forward. I commend Senator Chambers, the two ladies concerned for coming forward and the Minister, her Department and officials for advancing this Bill. Any legislation that gives added protection to the women of this country has to be explored, implemented and enforced to the last. I congratulate my colleague on this excellent legislation.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Ba mhaith liom a rá go gairid, gurb í seo an tslí gur ceart don Oireachtas a chuid oibre a dhéanamh. Ba chóir go mbeadh Billí ag teacht ó Sheanadóirí nó Theachtaí mar seo. Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire as éisteacht leis na Seanadóirí agus leis an ngrúpa. Ba chóir di é sin a dhéanamh agus tá a fhios agam go ndéanann sí é sin an t-am ar fad. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil Billí ag tosú sa Seanad agus ag dul tríd an Oireachtas le bheith ina Acht ag críoch an phróisis.

Photo of Lorraine Clifford-LeeLorraine Clifford-Lee (Fianna Fail)
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I echo the sentiments expressed by previous speakers. It is a good day when we see Private Members' legislation go through the House having been accepted by the Government. It reinforces the importance of this House.

I commend my colleague, Senator Chambers, on all the work she has done to date. It results from her horror at hearing the stories put out by Una and Eve about their experiences. It is important that the victims of crime can highlight their situation and that we, as legislators, respond to this shortcoming in our legal framework in order that their efforts do not go to waste and good legislation is passed and implemented.

As Senator Chambers pointed out, a number of steps will have to be put in place for the Garda so that gardaí understand how the victims of this particular crime should be dealt with. This legislation is an important step on the road to solving the issue of violence against women in this country. It is only one step and many other steps need to be taken, but it is an important step. It recognises the seriousness of the crime. Stalking should not be ignored. It is a serious crime and has serious consequences for the victims thereof, but it can lead on to even more serious crime.

Well done to Senator Chambers. I thank the Minister for being open to this legislation and hope that more Private Members' Bills from this side of the House will pass with the approval of the Government.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Tá fáilte roimh an Aire. Cosúil le Seanadóirí eile, cuirim fáilte roimh an reachtaíocht ar an gcéim seo. I had intended just to echo the sentiments of support for this legislation and what it seeks to do but it struck me listening to Senator Chambers that I have a technical question, if that is in order. I hope it does not expose my ignorance in comparison to some of my more learned friends.

The Senator rightly mentioned the legislation going through the Assembly, led by the Minister of Justice there. It will allow for similar laws to be brought into effect. Will these Bills, when they become law, have the potential to run in parallel as opposed to overlapping and complementing each other? As Senator Chambers said, someone living in Cavan could be stalking somebody in Fermanagh and vice versa. If a woman or anyone else is being subject to this crime in the other jurisdiction, how should he or she report it? Should it be reported to the Garda or, if the person is in the North, the PSNI? How would that happen? Has the Department looked at that? If not, could it work through the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council to engage with the Justice Minister Naomi Long. On the back of today's debate, I will encourage her to do likewise.

The legislation is welcome. I support it and it will be effective. We need to make sure it is as effective as it can be. That is something we could look at as this Bill proceeds and goes through the Dáil as well. If the Minister does not have that information, maybe she can correspond with me.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I congratulate Senator Chambers on the vital legislation she has brought before us. I thank the Minister for her co-operation and work on the Bill. This sends out the message to Una and Eve that their voices were listened to through the work of Senator Chambers, which we are here to support. Unfortunately, due to circumstances, I cannot be around for statements on violence against women. I will, however, repeat what I said last week on the reproductive health Bill, namely, that this is the type of legislation we male politicians need to support and on which we need to co-operate with our female colleagues and work with the Minister.What happened in this country in the past two weeks has unfortunately brought this home to every one of us. We are here to do a job, namely, to legislate. I again thank Senator Chambers for this legislation and other legislation that will be brought together with it. I hope the House will support that legislation. We have a lot of work to do with regard to women's health. We are here to do it. I hope that co-operation, and the co-operation of the Minister, will continue into the future.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I offer my thanks to Senator Chambers and to our Minister for Justice for taking this Bill. From my own experience as a Minister, I know that too often people are of the opinion that the only people who can draft legislation are the very learned people we deal with in the Attorney General's office. No Department or section of the Oireachtas has a monopoly on wisdom, compassion or passion for particular problems the country has. Here we have two women, the leader of the Fianna Fáil group in the Seanad, Senator Lisa Chambers, and our female Minister for Justice, who have both recognised in the last year and since their appointment that we have a serious problem in this country. We have a problem with addressing and acknowledging the lived experiences of women with regard to violent crime, sexual crime, intimidation and harassment and issues relating to access to medical services, equality of opportunity in the workplace and equal participation on boards around the country or at our own Cabinet table. There are myriad forms of discrimination and dysfunction to be seen in Irish services when it comes to providing a happy, balanced and fulfilled life for the women and girls of this country, something which is sadly lacking. Over this week and last week, the watershed moment of the awful tragedy of the passing of Ashling Murphy has allowed women to solidify what we have all thought in our minds but never really expressed out loud because we constantly get told to stop whingeing about stuff. The days of not being brave enough to be able to stand up and say what we need to say about every facet of life for Irish women are long gone.

I am really proud to see the co-operation involved in this Private Members' Bill, which was so passionately introduced, researched and drafted by Senator Chambers, supported by Una and Eve, last year. What we have heard is only a drop in the ocean as regards the experiences of the harassment and stalking of women that prevails in this country. The co-operation of the Department of Justice is heartening to see. I want to put that on the record and welcome the Minister's commitment to working with Senator Chambers.

What is also really important arising from that watershed moment of Ashling passing last week is that we do not lump everything in together. We must show women due respect and take each individual disenfranchisement of women in Irish life seriously. We must shine a light and provide a window to talk about each and every instance. It is not just about violent or sexual crime, but all of the other discrimination that women and girls face in this country, which we so often brush aside. After this watershed moment, we must all co-operate and maintain this conversation's momentum in the weeks and months ahead. The Minister knows that she has a mammoth task ahead of her. I really do wish her well with it. She will succeed and we will all succeed and benefit from her passion in this particular area, particularly in respect of gender-based violence. Women are disenfranchised and many of our State services are disengaged from allowing women and girls to have a full, balanced and happy life in this country. There is a long list of things that need to be addressed. This is a very welcome start. I commend Senator Chambers for doing this and for having the tenacity of personality to see it through to the end. I congratulate the Senator.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I join with the rest of the Senators in congratulating Senator Chambers. This is a very significant day. We are all passionate about many topics but, on that day in September when we all spoke, there was an outcry. The Minister is showing that she listened to that and particularly to the voices of the women who have come forward, Una and Eve, and those of women all across the country. It is important to say that there are also men - and I know of some - who have experienced this kind of behaviour. It is also really important to mention that, in September, Senator Keogan spoke passionately here about her own experiences. That really struck a chord with many people around the country. It shows the importance of this Chamber. As the Leader said, the Department is working with the Senator on a Private Members' Bill in order to find a solution we all want. That is the way it should work. It has been very positive. I do not believe that, back in September, we would have thought we would reach this point in this space of time. It is really very welcome. I thank all of those who were involved in the advocacy and Senator Chambers in particular.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for the chance to speak on this Bill. Obviously, I will not be opposing it on the next Stage. While there is undoubtedly work to be done on how best to implement the changes we are discussing here, Senator Chambers and I have a shared desire to see the law in this area strengthened, as do all of us in this House. We must do so as soon as possible so that it can be a support and do what it is intended to do, which is to bring about justice for the many women who are impacted by this and for men, who are impacted by it to a lesser extent. I thank Senator Chambers for the work she has put into this Bill and this issue. I know she has done a great amount of work, not just in engaging with Eve and Una, but across the board to make sure that every issue is covered. In my own work since entering the Department of Justice, I have tried to prioritise domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and not only bring about new policies and introduce new laws, but also strengthen those we have. As was mentioned in a discussion we had here just previous to this debate, it is not always about creating new laws. It is often about strengthening the laws we have.

I am profoundly aware of the impact stalking can have on individuals. It is an extremely serious and intrusive crime. I am well aware of the psychological impact it can have because I have seen the impact it had on a very close friend of mine. I know what it can do to a person. It is devastating to see. I have been particularly struck by those who have spoken out, including those who have spoken out in this Chamber and in the Dáil. I particularly thank Eve McDowell and Una Ring, the co-founders of Stalking Ireland, who showed bravery both in recounting what happened to them and their personal stories and in pursuing their tireless campaign to bring this issue to the fore. With regard to the number of people they have supported, I do not believe they themselves expected so many people to come forward and contact them directly but people have contacted them and that is because of their work, what they have gone through and the fact that they have put themselves forward, which is never an easy thing to do. It is only by listening to the lived experience victims and survivors of stalking and other offences of that kind and taking on board their experiences, good, bad or indifferent, that we can strengthen and improve our laws and make sure that the best system and structures are in place to support them.

I am particularly conscious of the evidence that shows that, when a specific offence of stalking has been introduced in other areas, it has led to greater awareness of that crime. We also see an increase in the number of victims coming forward and the number of those who are guilty of these crimes being prosecuted. That is ultimately what we want. We want to create a system that allows victims to feel comfortable in coming forward and in which they know they will be supported and protected the entire way through and that those they come into contact with will be able to support them in that way. Senator Chambers mentioned the need for training. That is a key element of Supporting a Victim's Journey, my plan in the Department to improve the criminal justice system. This will include training for members of An Garda Síochána separate from the training for those in the divisional protective service units that have been established throughout all of the new divisions. It also includes the legal professions, that is, solicitors and barristers, and the Judiciary, where we only recently saw moot courts and training on the issue of sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault taking place. It is extremely important that, when people come forward, they know that the law is on their side and that they will be supported.The existing section 10 harassment offence covers stalking behaviour. We are speaking about strengthening the law. I encourage victims of stalking to report it. It has been and is prosecuted. Offences carry potential sentences of up to ten years. We recently increased this through the introduction of Coco's law whereby it moved from seven to ten years. Perpetrators should not believe they can act with impunity and I want to make this clear. This is not to say the law cannot be improved. It can be and I am absolutely determined, as Senator Chambers and many others are, that it will be.

As I said, there is further work to be done on how we do it. I look forward to working with Senator Chambers, Eve, Una and others. There is an overlap between the existing harassment offence in section 10 and the proposed offence in the Bill. This creates a concern that perhaps there is a lack of clarity and certainty as to how a prosecution should be or could be conducted. Some conduct will potentially fall under one section or another but not necessarily both. It potentially creates a risk. This is something we need to work through and make sure that, however, we put forward proposals the law is clear. Whether it is An Garda Síochána, the DPP or the courts we must make it as clear as we can.

There are other areas separate from the Bill itself, within which is the experience of Una and Eve, in particular. They are very clear they want their experience to be acknowledged in strengthening the law. There are other changes and recommendations I would like to make with regard to changes. We must make it clear that stalking occurs whether or not a victim is aware he or she is being stalked. This is not an academic point. We should not wait until serious harm occurs or somebody finds out when it is too late. It is very important that even though a person might not know he or she is being stalked it is an offence. It must also be made clear that impersonating a victim and communicating with a third party is illegal. We need to make sure our laws cover all forms of communication. We know things change and evolve and inevitably there will be more ways to engage with each other. The Bill also looks at introducing a provision whereby victims in very serious cases can apply to the court to prevent alleged perpetrators communicating with them in advance of a trial. There are many ways in which we can strengthen the law.

I thank Senator Chambers for her work in bringing forward the Bill. I look forward to working with her as it passes through the House and as we find a way to make sure that the existing law and the new offence of stalking are as clear and strong as possible so that victims will know when coming forward that perpetrators will be prosecuted. At the end of the day this is about supporting victims and making sure they are very clear that when they come forward they will be supported, listened to and that those responsible will be brought to justice.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for her help and co-operation and for that of the Department. I commend Senator Chambers and all those who have supported her and helped in this legislation. To outline how enormous a task it is for a Senator to have legislation passed, fewer than 20 Private Members' Bills by Senators have been passed in 100 years. Senator Chambers is truly joining an elite club and I congratulate her. It has been done only by pure persistence and the co-operation of all Members and, of course, the Minister and the Department. This is important legislation needs to be passed. I commend the Senator on her relentless and tenacious effort. Without it this would not have been done.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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On Wednesday, 9 February 2022.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Report Stage ordered for Wednesday, 9 February 2022.

Sitting suspended at 2.35 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.