An inquiry tasked with establishing whether the state failed femicide victim Bernice Cassar has concluded that the state 'system' failed the mother-of-two, particularly because of a lack of resources and a heavy caseload.

The inquiry report compiled by retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia, was presented to the government last month but its conclusions and recommendations were only announced on Thursday by Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard who also spoke on actions being taken by the government.

The ministers said the recommendations and conclusions will be published but these were not provided until the time of writing. 

They also refused to confirm that the inquiry had concluded that there was no responsibility to be shouldered by any single person. 

Cassar had filed multiple police reports against her ex-husband Roderick before she was shot dead as she drove to work on November 22 in Corradino. Days before she was killed, her lawyer pleaded with police to take action against her ex-huband for breaching a protection order. 

The inquiry was intended to examine whether the authorities were or should have been aware that Bernice Cassar’s life was in danger and if there were any failings in implementing domestic violence law.  

The justice minister observed that domestic violence suspects can either be charged in court under arrest or summoned to court. In the latter cases, the presiding magistrate appoints the hearing but is only informed on the details of the case just one week before. 

In this case, Bernice Cassar had asked for a protection order in July and it was upheld 

The minister said that the magistrates' caseload made it impossible for the court to hear such cases earlier. He said the recent appointment of new magistrates would make it possible to allocate one more magistrate to focus on domestic violence. As a result, the government now expected hearings to triple.

The scene where Bernice Cassar was murdered in Corradino.The scene where Bernice Cassar was murdered in Corradino.

The inquiry also mentioned the need for more training for the judiciary and other court staff. This was already being done and would be improved and extended to other professionals who work in the sector.

The authorities were also discussing the creation of another family court because the judge recommended more synergy between the Family Court, which heard civil matters, and the Magistrates' Court which dealt with criminal matters. The idea was to combine the two where members of the judiciary can decide on both. 

The Home Affairs Minister said nothing that the government could say could console the family of the victim.

The minister recalled that a Domestic Violence Unit within the police force was set up in November 2020  and now has 44 officers. The staff members will increase to 60 as well as additional social workers, ensuring a faster response time. The unit will be moved out of police headquarters to Sta Lucija, which will be a hub of other units. Another unit will work from Msida. 

Change to risk assessment system

Camilleri said the inquiry had recommended a change to the way the risk faced by potential victims was assessed. including a triage system. The so-called DASH system - which had found that Bernice Cassar only faced a medium risk - will in future feature a multidisciplinary approach. Professionals would be roped in to help usher in the necessary changes including ensuring that there was better coordination between all services dealing with domestic violence.

New standard operating procedures were also being drawn up.

The minister said university professor Joe Cannataci was being engaged to draw up changes to the law on electronic tagging, while analysing issues of privacy and data protection which needed to be seen to.

The inquiry also recommended a stronger focus on the education system on domestic violence. The government was also taking up the recommendation and would use funds raised by LESA from fines to fund education campaigns.

PN: Lack of resources is the minister's responsibility

In a reaction to the inquiry conclusions, Opposition leader Bernard Grech said this was a confirmation of what everybody had been worrying about - that the police lacked the resources they needed to keep up with the demands they faced every day.

It was a similar conclusion to another study, commissioned by the government, and carried out by Prof Andrew Azzopardi, which was shelved for more than a year.

During that time another mother, Rita Ellul, had also been killed.

"This state-appointed inquiry is further confirmation that minister Byron Camilleri is politically responsible for the lack of resources within the police force," Grech said. 

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