She was speaking as she moved the Second Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill in the Assembly. She said progressing domestic abuse legislation had been a key priority for her since becoming Minister.
“The need for this legislation has never been more clear. Abusers are wielding power over their victims because it is not an offence to do so. Now is our chance to change this by criminalising psychological and emotionally harmful behaviour, sending out a clear message this behaviour will not be tolerated and perpetrators will be punished.
“When home is no longer a safe place, the effect on day to day life can be devastating, both emotionally and physically. We are all aware of the ‘walking on eggshells’ analogy. The sad truth is thousands of people across Northern Ireland wake every morning feeling frightened, controlled, isolated, degraded, humiliated or ashamed, in their own homes. They are always on their guard, waiting for the next attack, whether physical or psychological. Tragically, their abuser is someone they should be able to trust: a partner, a close family member, the person that sits across from them at the dinner table.
“This is not something that just impacts on women, or on those in heterosexual relationships. We know anyone can be a victim: men; women; members of the LGBTQ community; even parents, suffering abuse at the hands of their children.”
“Domestic abuse is all too often shrouded in secrecy, with victims feeling they can’t talk about what goes on behind closed doors. This is beginning to change and I want to pay tribute to the survivors who have bravely taken the step to talk to me about the physical and mental distress they have gone through.
“It is the courage of these survivors and others like them who took part in the public consultation, which has helped shape this Bill to address domestic abuse; including coercive and controlling behaviour.
“Police are currently attending incidents where coercive and controlling behaviour is present but they are limited in what they can do as that behaviour, on its own, is not currently an offence. By recognising this as an offence, the new legislation would give police the opportunity to intervene at an earlier stage and perhaps stop the escalation of domestic abuse. The new legislation proposed in the Bill also captures the repetitive nature of domestic abusive and its cumulative effect.
“Shamefully, a number of abusers use the criminal justice system to further victimise their partner, ex-partner of family member. For this reason, the Bill includes safeguards to prevent an abuser using the criminal justice process to further exert control and influence over their victim. These provisions should help to minimise the trauma for the victim while ensuring the proper administration of justice is achieved.
“This is a significant piece of legislation which will help thousands of people across Northern Ireland who are experiencing domestic abuse, male, female, young, old as well as those of all sexual orientations. It sends a clear message domestic abuse in all its forms is a crime and will not be tolerated in society.”