Ciarán Finlay is FLAC's Legal & Policy Officer.
On 6 March, the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women published a comprehensive blueprint for government action to advance gender equality in Ireland. This followed a formal UN examination of Irish state officials in Geneva in mid-February on how Ireland is meeting its obligations under the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international bill of rights for women.
Ireland ratified the UN Convention in 1985 and its implementation is monitored by a body of independent experts, the UN Committee on women’s rights. February’s review marked the fourth occasion that Ireland has been examined by the UN Committee.
FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) actively participated in the CEDAW reporting process, providing a submission to the UN Committee in advance of the examination (which can be accessed here) and attending the review as part of a civil society delegation coordinated by the National Women’s Council of Ireland. In addition to pre-arranged briefings with the UN Committee, FLAC also lobbied individual members of the Committee to ensure that issues of particular concern to us were raised during the dialogue with the state delegation and in the Committee’s subsequent recommendations.
The extensive work of NGOs and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission reaped dividends, with the UN Committee producing a detailed set of recommendations concerning the enforcement of women’s rights in Ireland. FLAC especially welcomed the inclusion of our primary concerns in the Committee’s recently published observations.
Amongst the chief concerns FLAC raised with the UN Committee were shortcomings in Ireland’s gender equality infrastructure. For instance, the Equal Status Acts 2000 – 2015 prohibit gender discrimination in the provision of goods and services, the provision of accommodation and access to education. However, Section 14 of the Equal Status Acts precludes legal actions against legislative provisions. In practical terms, this means that any legislation which discriminates against women, or has a disproportionately negative impact on women, falls outside the scope of the Equal Status Acts and cannot be challenged under domestic equality legislation.
The UN Committee issued a clear call for change, recommending that the State amend section 14 of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015 to ensure that an effective remedy is available for discrimination that has a legislative basis.
FLAC also sought to highlight the potential of the Public Sector Duty as a critical tool in gender mainstreaming. Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 requires public bodies, including government departments, to have regard, in carrying out their functions, to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and treatment of service users, and protect the human rights of service users. FLAC emphasised that full implementation of the Public Sector Duty would ensure that women in all their diversity are at the heart of all public action, policy and procedure.
The UN Committee shared FLAC’s views, recommending that the Public Sector Duty be utilised to promote the mainstreaming of gender equality in all areas and sectors.
The main issue raised by FLAC was the inaccessibility of the civil legal aid scheme for women experiencing domestic abuse. Access to legal protections, in the form of safety, protection and barring orders, are oftentimes contingent on civil legal aid from the State. Civil legal aid services, which are provided by the Legal Aid Board, allow people who cannot afford private legal representation to access court-ordered legal remedies which compel their abuser to leave the home or prohibit the violent person from committing or threatening further violence.
Despite the popular misconception that all legal aid is free, people affected by domestic violence who qualify for civil legal aid services are required to pay a minimum financial contribution of €130. Actual contributions will often be significantly higher, and increase relative to the person’s income. FLAC’s experience has shown that this fee creates a host of difficulties for women from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well as those experiencing economic abuse.
While the Legal Aid Board can waive payment of financial contributions, public awareness of the waiver system is low, applicants must wait for a decision in respect of their waiver application before a Legal Aid Board solicitor will file court proceedings and there is no automatic entitlement for people who experience domestic violence to a waiver.
The UN Committee echoed FLAC’s concerns, identifying the requirement to pay financial contributions where safety, protection or barring orders are sought as a key barrier facing victims of domestic violence.
In this context, the Committee recommended that the State increase funding for civil legal aid services, review the financial eligibility criteria and end the requirement for victims of domestic violence to make financial contributions for civil legal aid when seeking court protection under domestic violence legislation to ensure access to justice to all women without sufficient means.
The recent publication of the UN Committee’s recommendations are especially timely given that the Department of Justice and Equality is expected to finalise a new National Women’s Strategy to cover the period 2017 - 2020 within the next month. The long-term vision informing the new strategy is “an Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life”. To make that vision a reality, FLAC submits that the UN Committee’s blueprint for change must form the basis for the new strategy.