Landmark judgement finds State responsible for police inaction in domestic violence case

Systemic failure in the way police investigated and prosecuted domestic violence reports led to the secondary victimisation of woman

The victim was a vulnerable woman who had suffered at the hands of her husband for many years
The victim was a vulnerable woman who had suffered at the hands of her husband for many years

The Constitutional Court has confirmed an award of €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 her from her estranged husband, pointing to “systemic failures” on the part of the Police.

In what is a landmark judgment on the matter of domestic violence, Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi, Mr. Justice Giannino Caruana Demajo and Mr. Justice Anthony Ellul said they were in “perfect agreement” with the court of first instance, in that the woman was a vulnerable person who had suffered at the hands of her husband for many years, filed a large number of police reports against her husband. 

The man had defied protection orders and bail conditions and had continued with his criminal behaviour towards the woman, who lived in fear for her safety and that of her children. Despite her reports, there were instances when the police did not take action or delayed taking action. 

The first court had, in fact, noted “systemic failures” in the way police investigated and prosecuted domestic violence reports, all of which led to the secondary victimisation of the applicant.

It observed that the police did not have a centralised system for flagging protection orders issued in favour of victims of violence. Such a system should be available at every police station, said the court. Neither did the police have a central office or standard operating procedure for the prosecution of domestic violence cases.

“It is evident that the system failed, and failed in a big way, especially in view of the number of reports filed by the applicant and the failure of the police to proceed on a number of them in the context of an escalation of abuse,” said the judges.

The Constitutional Court noted that the ill-treatment of the wife was self-evident in this case and that this ill-treatment had caused fear, anxiety and desperation in the wife. It concluded that this amounted to inhuman treatment under the European Convention of Human RIghts.

In their appeal application, the State Advocate said nothing that could convince the court that the appealed sentence had an incorrect evaluation of the facts, said the court. “The shortcomings pointed out by the First Court are blatant. For example, that a victim of domestic violence has no reference point with which to file reports but had to make them in different police stations, apparently depending on where the incident took place...This way the victim must repeat the traumatic experience every time she makes a report and produce documentary evidence at the police station.”

Despite protestations to the contrary, the court said there were several instances where it was evident that the police had not taken steps against the man and had not given adequate explanation as to why this was the case. It upheld the judgment at first instance and confirmed the award of damages.

Lawyers Lara Dimitrijevic and Stephanie Caruana appeared on behalf of the woman.