If we want ‘faster justice’… we have to invest in it a little, too

Simply put: if you want a system – any system – to operate faster and more efficiently… sooner or later, you’re going to have to invest a little money into it, too

‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ As idioms go, this one may be just slightly trite and hackneyed… but let’s face it: is also a sentiment with which anyone, who has ever had dealings with the Maltese law-courts, will immediately identify.

Take me, for instance. It’s been over a year and two months since I filed my first-ever libel case, in over 20 years of writing articles in newspapers. And so far, there has only been one real hearing to speak of: way back in January 2020.

Twelve months later, almost to the day, we still haven’t proceeded to phase two: i.e., where the defendant gets to testify in court.

And OK: to be fair, a large part of that delay can be put down to the long months of court closure – from March to October 2020 – due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But some of it was also because, on at least one occasion, the court registrar took down the wrong date for a hearing… which, in practice, meant that: a) I ended up wasting a whole morning going to court for nothing, and; b) the next hearing was set for a whole three months down the line.

How many other people have had to endure similar experiences over the years? I shudder to even imagine. Let’s just say the oldest ongoing trial before the (Gozitan, in this case) courts, was first instituted almost 48 years ago: on 9 March 1973, to be precise… when I was only two years old.

Well, I am now entering my 50th year: and that case is still nowhere near reaching a final verdict. Honestly, it makes you wonder whether any of the protagonists will still even be alive, when (or if) it ever does…

Meanwhile, a Council of Europe report published last October concluded that (in case we hadn’t already worked it out for ourselves): “court cases in Malta take between double and eight times as long to be concluded as the average in the EU”.

So yes, I think it’s fair to say that – on the basis of the above expression – justice does get delayed (and therefore denied) to Maltese people quite a lot. But then again… ‘justice delayed’ is also about the only thing you can realistically expect, in a country that simply never invests the necessary resources into its judicial system to begin with.

That, at any rate, was the verdict of Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, who this week penned a statement on behalf of the Association for Judges and Magistrates.

Quoting the same European Commission report, Depasquale pointed out that “Malta has half the number of judges required per 100,000 of its population when compared to the rest of the bloc.”

He also noted that each member of the judiciary should ideally have a sizeable complement of personnel ‘to handle shortcomings inside the court registry’ – something I can attest to myself, from personal experience – and ‘to assist the new members of the Bench’.

In brief: “A long-term plan is needed for the investment in, and attraction of, trained and competent individuals who assist the judiciary.”

And yet, even on the rare occasions when government does invest in human resources at the law-courts… it is only ever to appoint new judges and magistrates (four of them are in the process of being approved, as we speak); and never to increase staff or personnel to assist individual judges in their work.

“It’s time that the government recognises the courts’ financial requirements,” Depasquale wrote. “It is useless increasing the number of judges in the courts, if they do not have the people or tools to operate efficiently…”

Not that it makes much of a difference to his core argument; but the association’s statement was issued (indirectly) in response to an interview with Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, published in this newspaper earlier this month.

On that occasion, the minister “admitted that court delays in Malta have to be addressed, and has pledged focus on the administrative reform of the courts in 2021, by tackling compilations of evidence, inquiries, the family courts, depenalisation, and digitisation.”

In other words, everything but the glaring elephant in the room: i.e., the fact that the law-courts are simply too understaffed to cope with their current total of at least 800 active cases (not to mention the unquantifiable number of cases pending...)

Rather than address that one issue, it seems that the government’s entire plan is based on ‘reforming’ how the process actually works… specifically, by weeding out those parts of a court-case that tend to take longer than others.

The compilation of evidence, for instance. I’ll keep this part brief, because I already brought it up in a previous article… but yes, there is no doubt that removing that element would greatly speed up the duration of any given criminal trial.

Unfortunately, however, it would also undermine a substantial portion of the judicial process itself… by relieving the courts of the duty to establish: a) that a crime had even been committed at all, and; b), that the evidence – upon which a future conviction might be based, please note – had been collected fairly, appropriately, and above all, LEGALLY.

Much the same could be said for magisterial inquiries. Granted, Zammit Lewis might not be proposing ‘ending’ such practices, once and for all… but we have already seen, in the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry, that his government’s approach is to simply set limits on the duration of any given inquest.

Again, this would no doubt hasten proceedings considerably; but for starters, there’s the insignificant matter of the judiciary’s independence to take into account; and besides: setting time-limits, without introducing any form of ancillary assistance to individual magistrates, is likely to increase not just the speed of the inquiry itself… but also, the chances of a hasty (and therefore dubious) conclusion.

Yet these, nonetheless, are the main pillars in the Justice Minister’s strategy to tackle the excessive duration of Malta’s justice system. And it is roughly the equivalent of trying to make a car go faster… not by investing in a new engine, or a few much-needed spare parts; but by literally stripping the vehicle of any excess weight – the bumpers, side-mirrors, passenger seats… heck, even the doors, trunk and bonnet, if it comes to it – so that in the end, you’re left with the mere skeleton of (an admittedly much faster) car.

Would it pass a VRT test, though? I somehow doubt it…

But in any case: for what it’s worth, I don’t think we should have any trouble figuring out precisely why the government has been so very reluctant to dig into its pockets – sorry, OUR pockets – and fork out the necessary money to upgrade the judicial system to the 21st century.

Part of the answer is right there, in that sentence: MONEY. But another factor is that the judiciary technically forms part of the wider Public Service: and any investment in one sector of that service, is bound to have ripple-effects on all the others.

This, by the way, is also why Maltese governments have been traditionally reluctant to ever improve employment conditions in any other single facet of the public service: teachers, University academics, doctors and nurses, and so on.  It’s like that old joke that starts: ‘Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’… to which the waiter testily replies (in one version, anyhow): ‘Not so loud, or the rest will be wanting one, too!’

In turn, this might also explain yet another of the Association’s complaints: ‘Citizens’, Depasquale wrote, ‘demanded timely justice just as in the way it received other public services, which likewise benefit from generous public investment…’

There are plenty of examples to choose from. And just to stick to the previous automotive example, I’ll mention only one. Traffic.

As has been variously pointed out (among others, by myself last Wednesday) government’s response to Malta’s traffic woes has so far been limited to simply expanding the existing road network: in other words, building bigger, wider roads for cars to travel faster upon.

And while that approach can be criticised for all sorts of reasons… ‘stinginess’ isn’t exactly one of them.

The Central Link project alone, for instance, cost an estimated €55 million: of which government had to fork out 30%, with the rest financed by the EU.

In this case, the stated aim was to “reduce travel times […] along the principal arterial road corridor in central Malta” (note: I won’t bother with the rest – ‘whilst creating safer spaces for alternative modes of travel’ – because it clearly belongs to the same realm as fairies, unicorns, dragons, and other inexistent superstitions).

The question that arises, however, is: if government was willing to spend so much money on ‘speeding up the flow of traffic in Malta’ – regardless of how short-term the acceleration may prove, or at what environmental cost – why isn’t it just as willing to spend a little on ‘speeding up the course of justice’ while it’s at it, too?

In all probability, the answer would have to include the fact that – unlike the case with the judiciary – government is not committed to invest comparable amounts in all other sectors of the infrastructure, as it invests in roads (so much so that… um… it never does).

And under those circumstances, government can easily see what always seems so utterly invisible in the case of Malta’s justice system: not to mention all the other sectors of the Public Service that are also crying out, in vain, for better employment conditions.

Simply put: if you want a system – any system – to operate faster and more efficiently… sooner or later, you’re going to have to invest a little money into it, too.