The Malta Independent 16 July 2020, Thursday

Domestic violence risk assessment system being reviewed after multiple complaints in court

Jeremy Micallef Sunday, 7 April 2019, 08:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

A new system being used by the authorities to assess the risk of domestic violence since the introduction of the Gender-Based and Domestic Violence Act in 2018 is currently being reviewed by the government following complaints regarding its effectiveness from magistrates, prosecutors, defence lawyers and the police.

Since its introduction, the DASH system – the Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Risk Identification, Assessment and Management Model – has been the subject of numerous complaints regarding the frequency with which domestic violence cases are assessed as being ‘high-risk’.

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DASH is basically a risk checklist used by the authorities to identify the level of risk of domestic violence on a case-by-case basis.

But recent findings from a study led by the University of Manchester, in collaboration with the Autonomous University of Barcelona, established that “DASH as it is currently used has very poor classification accuracy (no better than random)”.

For a case to be assessed as ‘high-risk’, it must reach a certain threshold of questions answered in the affirmative – although this rule can be disregarded at the discretion of the Case Officer.

In the past few months there have been at least two incidences in the Maltese courts where the DASH system had been heavily criticised by magistrates, prosecutors, defence lawyers and the police.

In December, an arraignment on domestic violence charges led to an impromptu courtroom discussion and a joint appeal to Parliament by the presiding magistrate, prosecutor and defence lawyers to revisit the changes to the law concerning domestic violence.

Since the changes to the law, cases of domestic violence have mushroomed, said Senior Inspector Trevor Micallef, referring to how social workers were being called in to assess potential victims who would be required to testify before a magistrate at any time of the day or night, once their case was deemed as being of ‘high risk’.

“Everything is now ‘high risk’,” said the Inspector, adding that the accused identified in high risk cases have to be arraigned under arrest.

Defence lawyer Franco Debono had echoed the sentiment of the opposing counsel and, together with the magistrate, had appealed to the authorities to make amendments to the current legal set-up which, they said, could potentially give rise to a breach of Constitutional Rights.

Just last month, a lawyer accused the Appoġġ support agency of having exaggerated a case. Lawyer Martin Fenech had insisted that when the police receives a report of violence, Appoġġ draws up a risk assessment that invariably states that the case was one of ‘high risk’, which necessitates an arrest. “Suddenly,” he said, “everyone is high risk,” adding that this practice was “rampant”.

 

Proposal to ‘fine tune the law being vetted’, to be tabled in Parliament

Malta introduced the DASH model following independent research, which was followed by the delivery of training to professionals, a Ministry for Equality spokesman had insisted with this newspaper.

He added: “The use of this tool is crucial to the functioning of the amended law as it ensures that high-risk victims are provided with urgent attention and are protected from the risk of serious harm.”

With regard to the system itself, it was explained that, following the enactment of the law, contact was maintained with all those involved – including magistrates and judges – who identified certain issues that the Ministry had taken on board, and developed a proposal to fine-tune the law along with partner institutions such as the Police, Aġenzija Appoġġ and the Commission for Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence.

“This proposal is currently being vetted and will be presented to Parliament”, said the spokesman.

The Commission on Domestic Violence was also contacted and a spokesperson said that the Commission does not get involved in service delivery, but ensures that legislation and policies are implemented as they should be.

 

The Manchester study

The DASH checklist is made up of a series of questions, and the Manchester study found that the random results could have come about due to the fact that “officers scoring with this tool are paying more attention to items in the tool that have little to no predictive information and neglecting those that are more informative”.

The checklist is made up of a series of questions, and the Manchester study found that the random results could have been due to the fact that “officers scoring this tool are paying more attention to items in the tool that have little to no predictive information and neglecting those that are more informative.”

It was also established that the use of a simple logistic regression model to score the DASH tool provides better, if still poor, predictive accuracy than the scoring done by officers, and that only a subset of items in the DASH tool provide predictive information.

This may have led to genuine victims of domestic violence being overlooked due to the random nature of the results, leaving them at the mercy of their abuser/s.

Although, considering that the issue being raised is the over-assessing of cases as “high-risk”, it is more likely that those who were not protected are the innocent victims of false allegations, as these “no better than random” results possibly resulted in blameless individuals being forcibly removed from their homes, charged, held without the opportunity to post bail and, potentially, even being separated from their children.

Essentially, the system may have pinpointed all the guilty individuals, but to the detriment of some innocent people,  rather than protecting the innocent at the expense of some guilty people going free. As matters stand, the risk is that those accused of domestic violence are, through DASH, being found guilty immediately, rather than being innocent until proven guilty.

 

Questions have also been sent to Aġenzija Appoġġ and the Malta Police Force, but replies had not been forthcoming by the time of going to print

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