Conditions that led to Bernice Cassar’s murder are still present, activists warn one year on

One year on from the horrific murder of Bernice Cassar, women’s rights acitvists believe the conditions that led to the murder are still present

Murder victim and mother of two, Bernice Cassar
Murder victim and mother of two, Bernice Cassar

One year on from the horrific murder of Bernice Cassar, women’s rights acitvists believe the conditions that led to the murder are still present.

They say a lack of urgency when dealing with domestic violence cases in court and a significant backlog are contributing to the lack of safety for domestic violence victims.

Bernice Cassar was murdered by her estranged husband, Roderick Cassar, in broad daylight at the Corradino Industrial Estate where she worked.

Roderick Cassar had been served a restraining order by the courts after he had been charged with domestic violence several months earlier. On the fateful day, he stopped Bernice as she was driving, dragged her out of the car and shot her.

Bernice, a mother of two, died on the spot.

Roderick Cassar was the first person to be charged with femicide, a new legal provision that was adopted last year. He pleaded not guilty and the compilation of evidence against him is ongoing.

In the aftermath of Bernice’s murder, it emerged that she had filed five police reports against her husband for domestic violence, one of them being the day before she was murdered. An inquiry led by retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia later found that the State had failed to protect Cassar, citing a lack of resources to address domestic violence cases with urgency.

Lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic from the Women’s Rights Foundation said that when Malta’s gaze was fixated on this case a year ago, few were surprised that it had occurred. “We were all shocked but we knew that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened,” she stated.

Unfortunately, Dimitrijevic noted that despite some steps in the right direction, activists and people working close to domestic violence victims would not be surprised if a similar case were to happen again.

Dimitrijevic blames this on slow progress when it comes to implementing the recommendations of the Valenzia inquiry. The inquiry had recommended, among other things, the introduction of electronic tagging when dealing with domestic violence cases, having two magistrates solely working on domestic violence, and increased coordination between courts.

Dimitrijevic explained that court backlogs are among the biggest challenge for domestic violence victims, as court proceedings are often spread out across a number of months or years, discouraging victims from filing police reports. The lengthy process can also lead to victims withdrawing their reports.

“A lot can happen in the span of a few months,” Dimitrijevic stated. “Couples can sometimes reconcile and if the victim forgives the aggressor and refuses to testify against them, justice can be hindered.”

To remedy this, Dimitrijevic told this newspaper that legal changes are required, including an amendment in the legal definition of domestic violence in order to classify it as a pattern or behaviour rather than an act. “Sometimes, one-off heated family arguments are reported as domestic violence,” Dimitrijevic said, noting that these cases continue to burden the court with more domestic violence cases that may not be as urgent as other cases.

Domestic Violence Commissioner Samantha Pace Gasan said that court backlogs have been halved since the appointment of the second magistrate. “This is not to say that the current waiting times do justice to victims of domestic violence,” she said.

Pace Gasan also noted that between January and September of this year, over 2,700 domestic violence charges were issued.

Speaking about the resources needed for domestic violence victims, Pace Gasan mentioned the introduciton of the MARAM (Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Meeting) and the revision of the assessment tool used to identify high risk cases, filtering with the Gender-based and Domestic Violence Unit (GBDVU) within the police force.

“This means that higher-risk cases are being prioritised and giving more attention by the professionals involved; while the police have been working on introducing specialised hubs which will provide a calmer, more appropriate and safer environment for victims to report the perpetrators,” she explained.

The Domestic Violence Commissioner also explained that the GBDVU now has a total of 60 officers, while Aġenzija Appoġġ’s Domestic Violence Unit’s social workers have recently increased by two.

However, the shortage of social workers is of great concern, she said. This is being addressed through the re-classification of the social work course from a ‘generic’ to a ‘prescribed’ category, she added.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the Justice Ministry told this newspaper that in the first few months of 2024, government aims to table a Bill to amend Chapter 581 of the Laws of Malta. “This bill intends to implement another recommendation from the Valenzia Inquiry, as it will include a proposed amendment to the definition of the family or domestic unit in cases of domestic Violence.”

The spokesperson said the ministry, the police, and the Foundation for Social Welfare Services have been working together over the past several months, conducting numerous discussions to make sure that the proposed revisions address the range of cases they see on a daily basis.