'Slow Erosion' of Legal Rights Challenges Women in Italy

Two highly controversial rulings by the Italian Court of Cassation, one of the two highest judicial bodies in Italy, appear to have set women's rights back a step or two. In the process they have sparked anger and public debate from Italian women's rights groups.

In the first case, in mid-September, the court overruled a jail sentence against Francesco Lombardo, a construction worker convicted of having beat his wife so severely four years ago that she was admitted into intensive care. She remained in the hospital for 10 days.

Anna Mannino, his wife and a mother of four, refused to prosecute, saying the violent beating had been an isolated incident. But the public prosecutor in Palermo, Sicily, pressed charges. Prosecution in spousal abuse cases is mandatory whenever the recommended hospital stay exceeds seven days.

Mr. Lombardo was tried, convicted, and sentenced to eight months in prison. Two years later, an appeals court in Palermo sustained the ruling saying the injuries inflicted had been too severe to consider anything less than eight months imprisonment.

But in an extraordinary twist that appeared to surprise Lombardo himself - let alone women and legal experts across the country - the Court of Cassation argued there was no evidence Lombardo had beat his wife "systematically" in a "generally abusive context."

Unintentional abuse excused

The court's argument was a fairly simple one: Lombardo had lost control in a fight "provoked uniquely by jealousy," never intending to deliberately mistreat his wife.

Considering the otherwise "peaceful" domestic existence led by the two, the court concluded the case was not one of "deliberate mistreatment."

Ms. Mannino was the first one to rejoice. Before unplugging her phone and shying away from further media scrutiny, she told the Rome-based daily La Repubblica that her requests to testify at both trials in favor of her husband had been turned down.

"We had a fight," she said in the interview, "We were both nervous and he just lost it.... It doesn't matter, these things happen."

The consequences of the ruling, however, are far reaching.

Although Italian law, unlike Anglo-Saxon law, is not governed by precedent, in practice a ruling by the Court of Cassation bears tremendous weight on future deliberations.

A judge will think twice before upholding an opposing interpretation of a law simply because he or she risks seeing it struck out in a final ruling by the Court of Cassation.

Defendants are also far more likely to appeal on the basis of a Court of Cassation ruling.

Burden of proof on the wife

"What the court did is really quite perverse," says lawyer Tina Lagostena Bassi, member of parliament. "It basically said that in those rare instances a woman actually brings her husband to court, she must prove that her husband physically abused her not because he was jealous, or she didn't cook his meals right but because he intended to mistreat her." The end result, Ms. Lagostena Bassi says, is that "from now on, it will be up to the women to produce evidence pointing to a 'long history of domestic mistreatment.' "

There are some, though, who disagree. Maretta Scoca, also a member of parliament and well-known lawyer, believes the reaction to the ruling has been largely emotional and actually damaging to women.

"There is a law," she says, "and the law defines mistreatment as a specific crime. In Mr. Lombardo's case, the court did nothing more nor less than apply an exact reading of the law."

But even Ms. Scoca could not "begin to comprehend" what the Court of Cassation was thinking two weeks later when it cleared a man from Pordenone of having failed to pay his wife alimony.

The court stated that the man, whose identity hasn't yet been revealed, could not be held "criminally responsible" for a two-month lapse in his otherwise punctual payments. Instead, he will be held accountable in a civil suit.

As the failure to pay alimony falls in the realm of criminal law, the ruling seemed initially incomprehensible.

The ruling stated, however, that omission of payment could be considered a crime only when it proves habitual or whenever the party receiving alimony had no other means of support.

"It seems like a slow erosion of an established legal right.... Once again the court has sent women a negative signal," says Lagostena Bassi.

Scoca agrees. "I'm not sure what they were trying to do," she says. But if I've understood the ruling correctly, we're looking at a flagrant violation of the law."

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