A second magistrate has been tasked with helping to end a backlog in domestic abuse cases that was highlighted by the murder of mother of two Bernice Cassar.

Victims are having to wait up to a year from filing a police report for their case to be heard before a magistrate.

Now the justice ministry has said the recently appointed Magistrate Abigail Critien will support the domestic violence caseload that previously fell solely on Magistrate Lara Lanfranco.

She will take over child custody cases from Lanfranco and also preside over some of the compilations of evidence related to domestic violence cases, a justice ministry spokesperson said.

This would free Lanfranco’s time and she will increase the domestic violence sittings from once a week to three times a week – resulting in cases being heard earlier, the spokesperson said.

Following the femicide of Cassar, a mother of two who was shot dead on her way to work on November 22, it emerged that she had reported her estranged husband to the police for domestic abuse.

He had allegedly held a knife to her throat on Mother’s Day, May 8, 2022 but was not due to be charged in court for that assault until November 2023.

Her estranged husband, Roderick Cassar has been charged with her murder.

300 pending cases

The reason for the delay was the huge domestic violence caseload, all the cases being handled by Magistrate Lanfranco. Back in January 2022,  Times of Malta reported on the “enormous” backlog in domestic violence cases because the one magistrate dealing with the cases could not cope with 300 pending cases.

The need to address this was flagged in a €20,000 government-appointed study titled Perpetrators of Domestic Violence: Statistics and Perceptions of Risk Factors for Harmful Behaviour.

Recommendations included appointing more magistrates to hear domestic violence cases – a recommendation repeated in the government-commissioned inquiry report into Cassar’s femicide in which retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia concluded that “the system” failed her and that this was mainly due to the lack of resources available to the police and law courts and their heavy caseload.

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