Domestic violence reports dealt on first-come first-served basis not by priority

Dedicated police domestic violence unit drowning under workload - and the law is partially to blame

Bernice Cassar’s murder has laid bare a raft of problems regarding how domestic violence reports are handled, with the police’s specialised section facing an overwhelming caseload.

Several problems with the system used by the police force to handle domestic violence reports show that these cases are not being prioritised.

“Domestic violence reports are dealt with on a first-come first-served basis. They are not prioritised. So, minor reports over alimony are dealt with before that of a woman who had been beaten up by her partner,” one officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told MaltaToday.

Neither is it a simple matter of filing a domestic violence report, which has to be filed in person at the police headquarters. “There are often queues of people waiting to file DV reports outside the police depot,” the officer said.

And even with a fourth inspector recently added to the Domestic Violence Unit, it still is expected to handle every single domestic violence report in Malta, irrespective of the locality.

The Domestic Violence Unit has become a chokepoint for cases caused by its overwhelming caseload. That caseload is due in no small part to the wide-ranging definition of domestic violence at law, ranging from insults to attempted murder.

The unit’s inspectors are delegated cases that are punishable by over two years in prison, by roster. One inspector deals with cases of slight bodily harm, insults and other crimes punishable by less than two years in prison. ‘Minor’ cases are delegated to a lower-ranked officer, usually a sergeant.

But cases of harassment, grievous bodily harm, revenge porn and other serious crimes in relationships must be investigated by one of the four inspectors. Additionally, the same DV unit has to assist in murder investigations, on top of its workload.  “It’s impossible to work healthily,” the officer remarked.

There is nobody to help people understand the repercussions of filing a domestic violence report, like the effect on family relationships, added the officer.

“Then one fine day, you are summonsed and must give your account in court. The victim ends up questioning whether it was a good idea filing a report in the first place,” he said.

Domestic violence investigations take time, and in the cases where complainants forgive the assailant, the police work leading up to that prosecution often feels like a wasted effort. “It is so impossible to keep up, and the Domestic Violence Unit often needs the help of district police stations.”

Under the Gender-based Violence and Domestic Violence Act, domestic  violence means  “all  acts  or  omissions  including verbal, physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence causing physical and, or moral harm or suffering, including threats of such acts or omissions, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, that occur within the family  or  domestic  unit,  whether  or  not  the  perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim, and shall include children who are witnesses of violence within the family or domestic unit.”

Although law gives examples of what is considered a “family or domestic unit,” these examples are so vast in scope that even a fight between cousins falls within the definition of domestic violence.