The timing of the publication of the Bernice Cassar inquiry conclusions – aimed at establishing whether the state was responsible for her murder last November – was unfortunate. Although the inquiry report was completed back in January, it was only announced a night before the court verdict in the politically charged Vitals-Stewards case: which, inevitably, took centre-stage.
This is a pity: because even if Women’s Day provides an opportunity to focus on an issue which keeps cropping up, in the form of numerous episodes of domestic violence and femicide: the issue itself has never been fully addressed, through a complete overhaul of response structures.
Bernice Cassar died last November after being shot in the face and chest with a shotgun. Before she was killed, she had also filed several domestic violence reports against her estranged husband. In one case, Bernice Cassar had waited seven hours, unsuccessfully, to file a report. She returned the next day, and waited another two hours; but when police called her husband, he failed to turn up for the interview.
The day before Cassar was murdered at an industrial estate in Paola, her lawyer had begged the police to intervene to avoid a ‘tragedy’.
It is therefore not surprising that the inquiry, conducted by retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia, concluded that the state “system” had failed Bernice Cassar: particularly because of a lack of resources, and a heavy caseload before the courts.
The government’s reaction to the inquiry was to focus on what needs to be done in the future. But while it is important to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated over and over again, the state owes it Bernice Cassar to establish the individual responsibilities and the failures in the chain of command, which ultimately led to this systemic failure.
Valenzia concluded that it cannot be said that what happened was the fault of any one person in particular; but that the whole domestic violence system did not work as it should, as it did not protect someone who had repeatedly asked for protection.
But it is worth pointing out that any system is also composed of people: including the government ministers who had an obligation to take on past recommendations, and to prioritise the issue accordingly.
Once again, however, nobody has shouldered political responsibility for sweeping this issue under the carpet for so long. And while these problems go back to the proverbial inertia under past PN governments, Labour – which had promised to be the most feminist government in history – has failed miserably in giving this issue the priority it deserves.
The reality is also that Byron Camilleri has been the minister responsible for the Police Force since 2020. This means that he has to shoulder at least a degree of political responsibility for the systemic failures identified in the inquiry. In this sense, the least one expects from police Minister Byron Camilleri and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard is an apology.
In his report, Valenzia also referred to the lack of implementation of “countless” recommendations made over the years. “There is countless research, documentation and recommendations regarding domestic violence, so much so that some commented that this inquiry was not needed… We all know what the problems are (delays and lack of resources)… but in practice, nothing is done and things just keep going even though it is known that the system is not working… There are many proposals, but the implementation is lacking.”
Once again the inquiry has thrown the ball back into the politicians’ court, by presenting a list of recommendations made by previous reports: including the appointment of a second magistrate to deal with domestic violence cases, so that more domestic violence sittings are heard.
It also proposed better co-ordination between the Family Court and the Magistrates’ Courts; a revision of the current risk assessment system; the establishment of hubs in the north and south of the island, with teams specialising in domestic violence; electronic tagging, to keep track of protection orders; and to make police training on domestic violence mandatory.
While it is positive that some of these proposals, like the appointment of a second magistrate to improve the case load, have immediately been taken on board; it is also crucial that the government presents a clear timeframe for the implementation of the rest of these reforms, accompanied by a clear political commitment on the part of Ministers to resign if faced with another system failure.
On another level, one also expects a drive in our educational system to deal with misogyny and ‘toxic masculinity’: which reinforces gender stereotypes of males as dominant and aggressive, and the emergence of a global Intel culture which fuels resentment towards women who challenge male entitlement.
It is no surprise that You-tubers like the ultra-misogynistic Andrew Tate have a local following among young teens. This makes it even harder to understand why a performance challenging gender stereotypes, by ZiguZajg, has elicited so much unnecessary controversy.
Ultimately, the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ has to be challenged at all levels; because as past experience so often illustrates, failure to do so is likely to end in tragedy.