Magistrate backs lawyer's complaint over procedural delays

Magistrate agrees with defence lawyer's complaint over procedurally-imposed delays in criminal proceedings, which caused cases to drag on for years

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Matthew Agius
6 September 2017, 2:00pm
A court has written to the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice after it agreed with a defence lawyer’s complaint over procedurally-imposed delays in criminal proceedings, which caused cases that could be decided in a few months to drag on for years, instead.

Dennis Cremona, 42, from Marsa, is denying charges of having stolen cash from a service station in Attard on three separate occasions in July. In court today, his lawyer, Joseph Brincat deplored the fact that nothing could be done in the sitting because the case file had not been returned to court by the Attorney General despite the passage of six weeks since the last sitting.

In crimes punishable by over 2 years imprisonment, unless the Attorney General gives his consent to the proceedings being dealt with summarily, sittings have to be held at 6 week intervals while the Court of Magistrates compiles the evidence for the Attorney General to decide on whether or not to issue an indictment. During those 6 week periods, the case file with the new evidence gathered is sent to the AG, who may send it back if he decides that more witnesses should be heard on the basis of the newly compiled evidence. The result is that files often bounce back and forth between the court and the AG for several months.

Brincat argued that the 6 week term, which applies equally to persons under arrest and those who aren’t, “certainly goes against that censured by the European Court of Human Rights in the case Mikalauskas vs Malta,” which had held that pre-trial detention must be based on relevant and sufficient reasons and requires the authorities to display “special diligence” in the conduct of the proceedings. He reserved the right to take further legal action on this issue.

Magistrate Joe Mifsud said he understood the lawyer’s concerns, adding that many times the current system of notes of renvoi, as operated, acted as an obstacle, preventing courts from deciding cases within a reasonable time-frame.

In a memo he dictated in open court, the magistrate said: “The court believes that if a reform in the sense that the 6 week period between one note of renvoi and another is removed, trials can be dealt with much faster, allowing cases that take 5 years with the current system to easily be decided in 6 months.”

The magistrate also expressed his concern that, as they bounced between the office of the AG and the court, case files were arriving either the day before or on the day of, or indeed, during the sitting itself. “Effective management does not leave till the last minute - case files should be in the court’s hands at least a week before, not least so to allow police inspectors time to summon the requested witnesses."

The court ordered that the memo be delivered personally to Attorney General Peter Grech and to the Minister for Justice.

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Court reporter Matthew Agius is a Legal Procurator and Commissioner for Oaths. Prior to re...