Domestic violence: Protection orders, lack of training were all concerns brought up in 2020 report

We were warned: The system failures that led to the latest femicide in Malta were pointed out two years ago in the Council of Europe's GREVIO report

Council of Europe experts had flagged several shortcomings two years' ago in the manner by which domestic violence cases are handled in Malta
Council of Europe experts had flagged several shortcomings two years' ago in the manner by which domestic violence cases are handled in Malta

Council of Europe experts had warned of a lack of professional training among authorities on domestic violence cases back in 2020. 

Insensitive judges and a lack of perpetrator programmes were just two of the issues flagged by the experts. 

The Council of Europe’s group of experts on domestic violence, known as GREVIO, had flagged minimal initial training with regards to domestic violence and no initial training on other forms of violence against women.  

This was evident across all professions involved in preventing and combating violence against woman.  

Bernice Cassar became the third femicide victim this year, following a long history of gruesome femicides carried out by victims’ husbands, partners or family relatives.  

Cassar’s estranged husband, Roderick, fired three shots at her as she drove to work at the Corradino Industrial Estate. He hit her twice – in the face and the chest – killing her on the spot. 

Bernice bled to death on the wet tarmac outside her car in the industrial estate where she was heading to work. Roderick fled the scene and locked himself in his Qrendi home for hours until police stormed in and arrested him.  

Before her death, Bernice filed several police reports and opened judicial proceedings against her husband, exhausting all legal avenues to seek remedy. 

Bernice suffered an altercation with her husband outside the Floriana health centre on Sunday, 13 November, where she had been receiving medical attention.  

She immediately fled the health centre to the nearby police headquarters, where she waited seven hours, unsuccessfully, to file her report. She returned the next day, and waited another two hours to file her report.  

When police called the husband, he failed to turn up for the interview. But police never arrested him when he failed to turn up at the Floriana Police Headquarters on 20 November.  

Cassar had filed a total of five reports, and left the marital home herself on Mother’s Day with her children when her husband allegedly put a knife to her throat.  

A month later, when her husband was admitted to hospital and Cassar brought the children to visit their dad, the woman was again attacked by her husband, allegedly threatening to shoot her. 

Her lawyer followed up on this threat with an application for a protection order that was repeatedly breached by Roderick Cassar. 

Charges had been issued for three of the reports that were filed in May, but the relevant court cases were scheduled to be heard in a years’ time.

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

Police and judges lack training and sensitivity 

GREVIO’s recommendations from 2020 are all the more relevant two years later, with three femicides taking place over an 11-month period.  

“Police officers who routinely receive reports or respond to call-outs are not trained on the dynamics of domestic violence, nor on the gendered aspect of such violence, its risk factors and the need to ensure victim protection,” the GREVIO report said.  

“This leads to the phenomenon of dual reporting, alleged refusals to receive reports, interviewing the victims in an insensitive manner, lack of recording of patterns of abuse, barriers to reporting for particularly vulnerable categories of women and insufficient and ineffective collection of evidence in cases of rape and domestic violence.” 

GREVIO also pointed to insensitivity among judges, leading to repeat victimisation and low levels of prosecutions and convictions.  

“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, and of the role and importance of referring perpetrators to domestic violence programmes.” 

READ ALSO: Women failed by a nation - Bernice the symbol of Malta’s domestic violence crisis

Risk assessment and electronic tagging

GREVIO dedicates a section of its report to risk assessment and management, insisting that an assessment of the victim’s risk be carried out systematically and speedily by the relevant authorities and provide co-ordinated protection and support. 

One recommendation it makes is to introduce safety plan mechanisms, including through panic buttons and monitoring of the offender through electronic tagging. 

On protection orders, it insists that government should step up efforts to monitor and enforce protection orders, including through protocols, regulation and technical means such as electronic tagging.  

A court had imposed a protection order in favour of Bernice Cassar when she filed judicial proceedings against her killer last July.  

Protection orders typically impose restrictions and prohibitions on the person accused from approaching the victim, contacting the victim, or accessing the same premises in which the victim lives or works.  

If the protection order imposed in favour of Bernice included any of these restrictions, her husband would have breached the order multiple times, with Bernice reporting each breach to the police. 

And yet, this was not enough. A complacent and inadequate system left Bernice at the mercy of the man who fathered her two children until the inevitable happened.

READ ALSO: Editorial | Malta has a crisis