Lack of adequate police training, insensitive judges and delays in collecting evidence are leading to low domestic violence conviction rates, a Council of Europe expert report has warned.
The report of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), listed a litany of areas that required "urgent improvement".
While it said Malta has shown a resolve to stem violence against women through various legal, policy and awareness measures, many issues remained to be tackled.
The report, published on Monday, pointed to "minimal" initial training with regards domestic violence and "no initial training" for other forms of violence against women across all professions involved in preventing and combating it.
"The insufficient training has serious ramifications, particularly for the criminal justice system," it says.
Poorly trained police
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.
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.
Similarly, the report notes the “little sensitivity of judges”, leading to repeat victimisation and low levels of prosecutions and convictions.
Moreover, 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.
There was also a lack of understanding of the importance of referring perpetrators to domestic violence programmes.
Loss of evidence
Numerous shortcomings were also identified in the way that immediate support services for victims of sexual violence are currently administered.
Victims are required to present themselves before multiple services and retell their trauma in front of different professionals, leading, in most cases, to secondary victimisation.
There are also serious risks of loss of evidence due to the potential long waiting time required for the victim to be visited and the evidence to be lifted, the report says.
Moreover, since reporting obligations for professionals assisting rape victims have been introduced, there has been a drop in the number of victims that seek help.
Finally, a gap was identified in the support available to victims of sexual violence between the ages of 16 and 18, even though the age of consent is 16 years of age.
Divorce and domestic violence
Victims of domestic violence wishing to separate are often required to undergo mediation.
Due to their vulnerability stemming from the power imbalance that is typical in cases of domestic violence, victims are thus unlikely to be in a position to negotiate and reach an acceptable agreement that ensures the children’s and the mother’s safety.
In judicial proceedings related to separation or divorce, in practice, courts rely on court-appointed experts who have “limited knowledge and lack of understanding of violence against women”.
The report also notes that there are no guidelines providing guidance on what tests should be applied by judges in reaching a decision on custody and visitation rights.
Consequently, in cases of domestic violence, courts privilege granting shared custody and visitation rights to perpetrators, often through supervised access visits, with supervisors who are mostly untrained to work with perpetrators and on violence against women.
Vulnerable asylum seekers
In the area of asylum, there are no procedures in place to identify vulnerable individuals rescued at sea upon their arrival.
Where identification of vulnerable individuals does take place, it does not lead necessarily to their swift release from detention, owing to lack of space in open centres or other alternatives to detention.
The group's analysis followed a five-day evaluation visit to Malta along with a review of several other reports and figures.
The Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Act strengthened and widened the mandate of the former Commission on Domestic Violence by transforming it into a Commission on Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence (CGBVDV) and amended a number of laws to bring them in line with the Istanbul Convention.
The report also notes that Malta has increased the financial resources made available as well as to the Domestic Violence Services of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services.
Equality Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar welcomed the report. In a statement on Monday, they said that the government had taken "important measures" to implement the European Convention to combat domestic and gender-based violence.
These include the strengthening of the Commission on Domestic Violence, which had also had its remit widened to address gender-based violence.
The commission’s financial resources had also been increased to ensure monitoring of the Istanbul Convention obligations and the National Strategy at an inter-ministerial level.
The government had also committed itself to analyse the current situation of migrant women and victims of sexual violence in order to proactively address their needs. Additionally, it had strengthened the specialised legal service for victims of gender-based domestic violence through Legal Aid Malta.
Training is also being offered to prosecutors in areas of gender-based and domestic violence, where prosecutors meet and brainstorm with NGOs.
Malta had seen the strengthening of an inter-ministerial committee for the implementation of the National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence, set up to hold meetings with NGOs and other stakeholders to make sure that victims' needs were being adequately addressed.
Cutajar meanwhile noted that while in most cases the victims were women, it was important not to forget male and elderly victims and those within same-sex relationships.