Updated 1pm, adds PN statement

A woman who spent years suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her estranged husband has won a landmark case against the state for its failure to protect her from the trauma she was suffering.

The court awarded the woman €5,000 in moral damages after it ruled that the repetitive failure by the police to protect her was in breach of her fundamental human right to respect for private and family life and to the right not to be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment.

Outgoing Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi and judges Giannino Caruana Demajo and Anthony Ellul, presiding over the Constitutional Court, upheld a previous decision by the First Hall of the Civil Court.

The justices ruled that the state had a positive obligation to uphold the woman’s fundamental rights.

Instead she “suffered psychological traumas of a certain severity, not only because of her husband’s behaviour, but also because her husband continued to act with impunity despite the orders issued against him”.

The court found there were “systemic shortcomings” in police procedures for the investigation of reports and complaints filed by victims of domestic violence, and even for the prosecution of these cases.

It noted that the police did not have a centralised system for flagging protection orders issued in favour of victims of violence.

Police without central office for the prosecution of domestic violence cases

Such a system should be available in every police station, it said.

Neither did the police have a central office for the prosecution of domestic violence cases.

They had a victim support unit and vice squad to deal with these cases but evidence produced in court showed that the load was then shifted to the district inspectors, according to which particular police station received the complaint.

There was a never-ending list of police reports on similar abuses filed by the woman in different police stations. These were followed through by different inspectors in a sporadic manner and without the inspectors knowing of similar reports filed in other police stations.

There was no internal system to let other police officers know who was handling a case.

“As a result of these deficiencies, the police themselves created a double victimisation environment, so much so that the woman lost all hope that she would achieve any protection by the police and the judicial system.

“It is evident that the system has failed, and has failed tremendously,” the court ruled.

The woman endured “repeated incidents that brought fear, anxiety and despair” to her and her children. This made her suffer inhumane treatment.

The court rubbished the police defence that most of the cases did not end up in court because they were borderline cases.

“The police have to give a convincing explanation of how they came to that conclusion, including what investigations they had done before they decided to close the case. There were several reports where police failed to take action.”

The fact that there were repeated reports of identical or similar incidents was proof in itself that the state was not doing enough to protect the woman from her husband’s abusive behaviour.

“The state was duty-bound to take the necessary steps to protect the woman so she would not live a life of fear and sadness.”

The woman’s lawyers, Lara Dimitrijevic and Stephanie Caruana, hailed the court’s decision as a “landmark victory for all survivors of domestic abuse”. Dimitrijevic praised her client for plucking up the courage to fight for what was rightfully hers – protection by the state.

“The state has the obligation to protect and ensure that everyone lives free from violence. In the case of domestic abuse, this obligation is no different,” she said.

“This was recognised by our courts and confirmed on appeal, noting that we do not have effective and immediate remedies to protect from further abuse.

“Such failure lends itself to re-victimisation.

“On behalf of our client and all the survivors of abuse, we truly hope that all institutional stakeholders wake up, listen to those suffering and start adhering to their legal obligations,” Dimitrijevic said.

PN statement

In a statement, the Nationalist Party said this judgement was another example of society’s collective responsibility.

Domestic violence was not a women’s problem but a societal one which had to be addressed as soon as possible.

There was an urgent need to revise all legislation which was not serving victims, including recent laws moved by the Labour Government and which the Nationalist Party had already highlighted.

The party congratulated the woman in the case for the courage she showed in the legal battle and hoped that together with her legal team, she would be a live and real example in the fight for full and real equality.

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