Insensitivity leads to impunity

This was, in fact, the whole point of GREVIO’s warning: there is no point in improving the structures, if the underlying mentality continues to view gender-based violence through a rose-tinted lens

In different ways, two recent developments have cast a spotlight on the ugly realities of domestic violence in Malta.

The first was a report by the Council of Europe’s group of experts on domestic violence, GREVIO, which found that – while advances had been made, in terms of setting up structures to stem gender-based violence – the legal system still showed signs of ‘insensitivity’ towards victims: leading to repeat victimisation, and low levels of prosecutions and convictions.

“Police officers who routinely receive reports or respond to callouts, are not trained on the dynamics of domestic violence, nor on the gendered aspect of such violence,” the report notes. “This leads to […] barriers to reporting for particularly vulnerable categories of women and insufficient and ineffective collection of evidence in cases of rape and domestic violence.”

Moreover, the few prosecutions that take place are often met with ambivalence on the part of the judiciary: “Judges appear to have inadequate understanding of the change in paradigm in proving rape, of the role and importance of emergency barring orders and protection orders in breaking the cycle of violence in cases of domestic violence.”

The second development was a confirmation that domestic violence reports have increased recently. Speaking at the unveiling of the police’s Gender-Based and Domestic Violence Unit, Commissioner Angelo Gafa’ revealed that over the past few months alone, reports of domestic violence had increased from four per day to five per day.

Having said this, it would be unwise to draw a direct correlation between these two developments. The recent increase in reported cases may also be the result of an improvement in victim’s access to justice (as attested by the many institutions that have been created, or reinforced, in recent years: including the Police’s own specialised unit, but also the Commission for Domestic Violence, as well as new legislation against gender-based violence passed in 2018.)

But while ‘access to justice’ is undeniably an important first step, it is not, in itself, a solution. As former police inspector Dr Mary Muscat said in an interview with MaltaToday: “The structures are all in place […], but they don’t work because they’re not sensitive enough.”

There appears to be an abundance of evidence to back up this claim. The increase in reported cases also has to be viewed in the context of a very low conviction rate: out of the 480 cases prosecuted in 2017, only 53 ended with a guilty verdict – just 11%.

Even then, there is a marked tendency for the law-courts to hand down lenient sentences in such cases. Despite recent legal amendments – which increased the penalties to 12 years, in non-aggravated cases – lawyers such as Lara Dimitrijevic (who specialises in domestic violence cases) still argue that: “the general attitude towards violence against women and domestic violence is that it is all too often viewed as not being a grave offence.”

This in turn points towards an underlying cultural mindset, that may be a good deal harder to change in practice than legislation.

Nonetheless – as both GREVIO and Dimitrijevic also acknowledge – the process has already started. In April this year, the Constitutional Court upheld a decision to award €5,000 in damages to a long-suffering victim of domestic abuse, after it noted that the State had failed in a positive obligation to protect the victim.

The first court had, in fact, noted “systemic failures” in the way police investigated and prosecuted domestic violence reports, all of which led to a situation whereby repeated complaints had been ignored: resulting in the victim suffering prolonged trauma at the hands of her abusive partner.

But while justice was eventually served in this particular case, other victims may still face the same systemic issues in their own pursuit of State protection.

This was, in fact, the whole point of GREVIO’s warning: there is no point in improving the structures, if the underlying mentality continues to view gender-based violence through a rose-tinted lens.

Clearly, then, the time has come to address the cultural reasons for Malta’s apparent reluctance to take domestic violence with the seriousness it deserves. And much can still be done in this regard: starting with a review of how domestic violence reports are currently handled by the authorities; and extending to the introduction of victim impact assessments, and further training for judges and magistrates.

But it has to start with an acknowledgement that the problem exists. And from this perspective, government’s reaction to the GREVIO report – which was to dismiss, or minimise, the shortcomings it identified – was not a very encouraging start.