Police officers investigating serious domestic violence cases should ask the courts to issue a protection order and not wait for the victim to have to file the request and face legal fees to feel safe, according to the lawyer of femicide victim Bernice Cassar.
“Protection orders must be taken more seriously,” said lawyer Marita Pace Dimech, who spoke about domestic violence cases in general.
Police can ask for a victim’s protection if they feel there is the need to, and this has been done in the past.
“And when a victim reports a breach of a protection order this should be treated with more urgency and the perpetrator arrested immediately. Any related court case should be moved to a closer date – no one should breach a court order and that is what a protection order is.”
The lawyer had been representing Cassar during the various court cases initiated against her estranged husband, Roderick.
A timeline of events had revealed that Bernice moved out of the matrimonial home with her two children on May 8, Mother’s Day, after her husband allegedly held a knife to her throat. Cassar was to be charged over the assault in a case that was scheduled for November 17, 2023.
On July 14, Bernice took the children to the hospital car park to see their father, who was in hospital.
There, an argument ensued, and Roderick Cassar threatened to kill her. Following the incident, Bernice, through her lawyer, filed an application for a protection order which was issued for her protection on July 27.
But on November 13, the estranged husband allegedly turned up outside the Floriana health centre while Bernice was there and made a scene. That day – it was a Sunday – Bernice and her lawyer went to file a police report at the Floriana police headquarters. But after waiting from 7pm to midnight they returned the following day and waited from 4.15 to 6.45pm before they managed to get the report on file. Sources said a police officer on duty believed there was “nothing alarming” about Bernice’s report.
Her estranged husband was to go to the police headquarters on Sunday to be spoken to by police but never turned up.
On November 21, Bernice filed a report over defaming comments on social media. The following morning she was murdered, shot dead on her way to work. Her husband has been charged with the murder and Pace Dimech forms part of the legal team acting on behalf of the victim’s family.
On Tuesday, a government-appointed inquiry commissioned to look at whether the system failed Cassar concluded there was a lack of resources and a growing caseload.
Retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia, who carried out the inquiry, made various recommendations. These included taking protection orders more seriously and not limiting the issuing of a protection order to the request of a victim.
The lawyer added: “There has been talk of electronic tagging for several years. But when will this happen? Protection orders should at least be monitored by the police with regular follow-up calls to the victim.”
Valenzia also noted that the police headquarters are not an adequate place to handle domestic violence reports. The government has long been promising the setting up of hubs across the island where such reports would be handled.
Pace Dimech, who has been there with clients, could not agree more.
“Mothers who do not have a support network have no choice but to take their children with them to file the report and the headquarters is not a place for children. The waiting area has no facilities for children,” she said.
There is a childcare area within the offices but this is used by children while a report is being filed and not during the waiting times that can run into hours.
The lawyer also echoed Valenzia’s call to make domestic violence training mandatory for all police officers and called for action to be taken to implement the recommendations.
“The system is not working. We need to see action and listen to these cries for help and address what really matters,” she said.