Political bias is a poor substitute for expert opinion, you know

Last I looked, the role of Justice Minister was not to regale us with his personal and unsubstantiated views about the competence of the judiciary… but to ensure the judiciary really sees to the GREVIO concerns

Justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis. Photo: James Bianchi
Justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis. Photo: James Bianchi

Ok, let me try and work this one out for myself. A few days ago, the Council of Europe’s group of experts on domestic (and gender-based) violence – and please note: the emphasis should really be on the word ‘experts’ - released its first report on Malta’s implementation of the Istanbul Convention.

To be fair, it wasn’t all bad news. The report did highlight a number of significant improvements since the Istanbul Convention was ratified two years ago – such as the fact that the Police now have a dedicated unit against Domestic and Gender-Based Violence - and this, naturally, also meant that government’s official reaction (more of which in a sec) was to ‘welcome’ these positive findings… while seeming not to even the notice all the same report’s other, somewhat less flattering conclusions.

For instance: among a wide variety of other things, the 117-page GREVIO report also indicated a number of serious systemic flaws – too many to list out here - in Malta’s general approach to domestic violence issues… including, in no particular order: insufficient training among police officers handling the original complaint; a lack of support systems for vulnerable victims; the ‘systematic granting of bail’ by the law-courts, which - coupled with a lack of monitoring and enforcement of protection orders by the state – ‘sent a strong signal that domestic violence was tolerated’…

But what I found most intriguing, is that one of the report’s conclusions evidently resonated far more than all the others – to the extent that it was singled out as a headline by pretty much all the local media, without exception.

To use MaltaToday’s version: ‘Judges show little sensitivity to domestic violence victims, Court of Europe experts say’.

And to quote from the report itself: “Judges appear to have inadequate understanding of the change in paradigm in proving rape, of the role and importance of emergency barring orders and protection orders in breaking the cycle of violence in cases of domestic violence...”

Now: I can’t comment on behalf of all Malta’s newspapers and media outlets – nor even the newspaper I write for myself, at the end of the day. But I do have a vague idea why a local news editor (any news editor) would home in on precisely that single detail… in a report that was so replete with so many other, equally newsworthy revelations.

After all, the headline could just as easily have been: ‘Police turn away most domestic violence reports, out of ignorance of the law’ (which may even be the more important detail, given that a case has to actually get to court first… before it can become yet another miscarriage of justice…)

But no: most newspapers ran with the ‘judicial insensitivity’ headline (however differently it may have been worded)… and I suspect that’s also because it vindicates a deep-rooted impression that the Maltese press had already formed for itself, on the basis of its own experience, over long, long years of court reporting.

When it comes to domestic violence, newspapers are far more accustomed to the reporting of suspended (or very lenient) sentences, handed down to even the most violent repeat-offenders … and from that perspective, the GREVIO report seems to give official form and substance to a perception we all instinctively know to be well-grounded in fact: but which had never really been officially ‘confirmed’ before.

In any case: it certainly wasn’t a surprise… not to anyone who works in the media, anyway; and, I suspect, not to anyone else who reads court reports on a regular basis, either.

And yet… it seems to have come as a small surprise to our Justice Minister, Edward Zammit Lewis:  whose response to the ‘insensitivity’ charge was to “insist that the judiciary are ‘more than competent in their respective areas, with many of them understanding the circumstances in which the parties find themselves’…”

Or in other words, to defend the judiciary from this (very specific) line of criticism, solely on the basis of…

… erm…

…well, that’s precisely the problem, right there.  Zammit Lewis’s rebuttal of a 117-page report - compiled by a panel of local and international experts (that word again) - seems to have been based on nothing but his own personal convictions. And even then, without any visible form of substantiation, either.

Unlike the Grevio report itself – which delves into considerable detail (you can access the full document here - Zammit Lewis offers no evidence whatsoever to support his (let’s face it: rather extraordinary) claim that ‘many judges’ are ‘more than competent in their respective areas’… which would be a somewhat bald claim to make, even if the ‘respective areas’ concerned matters where the law-courts do not have such a widely-shared reputation for (in this case) ‘insensitivity’.

But on domestic violence? In a country which has become so inured to ‘insensitive’ court rulings, that we react to each successive slap-on-the-wrist with little more than a shrug – or maybe, at most, a growl of helpless frustration – and a fatalistic ‘here we go again’…?

That’s really quite delusional, you know. So delusional, in fact, that I almost find myself in complete agreement with Claudette Buttigieg (see what these things do to me?) when she argues that Zammit Lewis’ reaction “shows the incompetence of a government so cut off from reality, that it does not want to see the gravity of the situation…”

Having said all this, however… the same reaction was, at the end of the day, every bit as predictable as the usual suspended sentence handed down to an unrepentant, serial wife-beater.

And here, too, there is a reason why you can’t really expect a Maltese government – any Maltese government – to ever respond to criticism of Malta’s justice system with reasoned, logical arguments.

Let me put it this way: those judges, in whose capabilities the Justice Minister expresses so much (unsubstantiated) confidence? With the exception of the ones who were appointed over the past two years– i.e., since the system of appointing judges was changed – they were all, every last one of them, appointed to that role directly by government.

Not necessarily by Zammit Lewis himself – who hasn’t even been in the role long enough anyway – or even by his own party’s administration. But the fact remains that – and it’s a point I almost shouldn’t have to repeat, really… considering that the same system has been under so much scrutiny recently: by international ‘rule of law’ commissions, European institutions, the foreign press, etc. – when Justice Ministers like Edward Zammit Lewis (and all the others before him) ‘defend the judiciary’… what they’re really defending are their own choices of political appointees, past and present.

And as rule, the line of defence is always the same. How often have we heard ministers – from either party - opine that: oh, never mind if this or that judge comes to the role with some kind of ‘political baggage’ – say, by virtue of having once been a PN or Labour candidate, in a not-too-distant election… or even if he or she occupied some prominent post within a political party (until literally just a few years ago)…

No, none of that matters. Invariably, we are told that – whatever doubts may exist as to the suitability (or even capabilities) of the chosen candidate – these will no doubt evaporate, the moment we all see how the office itself (presumably through a combination of luck, wishful thinking, and sheer magic) will promptly transform the lucky political appointee into the perfect embodiment of Universal Justice…

… even when, just a few years before, he or she might have been reading the news on a political party station.

And from there, the argument quickly develops into the political equivalent of an ‘article of faith’. The minister will express ‘full confidence’ in the judge or magistrate in question… or even (as in this case) in all of them put together - for all the world as if ‘the minister’s confidence’, on its own, is enough to automatically qualify anyone to mete out justice, in a court of law, on matters that will almost certainly extend far beyond that individual’s limited sphere of understanding.

Sorry, but… it doesn’t really work that way, in the real world. And this, to me, is the true significance of the Grevio report. For where, until recently, that argument tended to suffice (also, to be fair, because some individual judges and magistrates have indeed risen above whatever political background they left behind them, when they took up the role)… it cannot realistically be expected to keep working, even in the face of an in-depth report, compiled (yet again) by experts… and which just happens to come to the clean opposite conclusion.

Not, mind you, that anyone except Zammit Lewis needed a 117-page report to prove it: but no. First of all, it is simply untrue that ‘all’ (or even ‘many’) judges are ‘more than competent in their respective areas, with many of them understanding the circumstances in which the parties find themselves’. Clearly, many of them do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence… and it shows up, in no uncertain terms, in Malta’s case history.

But secondly… last I looked, the role of Justice Minister was not to regale us with his personal (and once again, unsubstantiated) views about the competence of the judiciary… but rather, to ensure that the judiciary really does become competent: among other things, by seeing to it that the concerns expressed so emphatically by Grevio – and shared by the overwhelming majority in this country – are finally acted upon, without delay.

But hey, that’s just me… and in case you never noticed before: I’m hardly an ‘expert’, either…