Waiting for justice

Everyone in public service should be held accountable – even the judiciary – and the Bench should be part of a more open, public debate about the efficiency of the Maltese legal system and the courts

For years now we have been accustomed to treating the Maltese judiciary with kid’s gloves – treating them with the respect they deserve as an independent institution. In a certain sense, when respect turns to obsequiousness, the temptation to consider them as simply untouchables or beyond reproach, can also have its undesirable consequences.

Judicial decisions, even as they traverse the circuitous journey from one court of inquiry to appeal to supreme and back, are – the people accept – sacred and faultless. That is my view as well. Irrespective of the histories and even personal baggage of the people on the bench, I believe that any decision or judicial reasoning can always be questioned and challenged within the framework of rule of law of course, through the exhaustion of all judicial remedies.

It is one thing having good judges and magistrates. That is a discussion on its own. But it is clear that society will keep suffering the brunt of having hundreds of magisterial and other type of judicial inquiries going back years, which will never be resolved in due course.

Over the last years, working conditions and salaries for the judiciary and magistrature have been improved, but many will complain that the need for more facilities and logistical support never ceases. The real travesty of justice is the marathon towards the resolution of the magisterial inquiries and other compilations of evidence, or juries that are yet to be heard about crimes committed two decades earlier. This record is appalling.

And this situation is not only confined to the ordinary magisterial inquiries we hear about. It also includes a long list of unresolved inquiries about workplace deaths, of tragic fatalities that mainly concern foreign victims, sacrificed in the name of expeditious and deadly occupational set-ups. That speaks volumes about how some people matter more than others. In others words, it appears that it make a difference if the deceased person is Maltese or foreigner – nobody misses a refugee whose life was ended in a two-storey construction drop. Seems there is second-class even in magisterial inquiries. As we speak, legislation is being pushed to encourage inquiring magistrates to work with the occupational health and safety authority on such cases.

It is clear that a judiciary with its plate full, and a legal system in which magistrates do many jobs at once, a country that lacks a system of inquiring magistrates that can occupy themselves with specific crimes and special tribunals, means the status quo will never be broken.

So, if someone thinks that allowing magistrates to rest on their laurels while inquiries are kept ‘open’ on end with handsomely-paid experts irrespective of laziness or incompetence is something to be proud of... well, think again. Those families who have waited for years to know more about the tragic event and death that caused the death of their loved ones, have had to wait too long by the time the conclusions surface – and then it is too late to do anything.

Magistrates rightly complain that they do not have the resources to handle their backlogs. But nothing still justifies the backlog. Justice minister Jonathan Attard thinks it is time to raise hell about the efficacy of the magistrature. But ultimately it is him who must address this situation. The Maltese judiciary cannot complain of political interference, and it is very much a body governed by itself.

So it is clear that the Maltese government must start considering the appointment of specialised magistrates who carry out specific inquiries, on specific crimes in which efficient resolutions are necessary – from occupational deaths, to high-level corruption.

There must be political will, firstly from the government; and also, to a certain extent, by the personalities that become inquiring magistrates with a sense of duty to resolve such crimes.

Everyone in public service should be held accountable – even the judiciary – and the Bench should be part of a more open, public debate about the efficiency of the Maltese legal system and the courts.

For the wings of a dove

The recent debate over an exhibition by the Kaċċaturi San Ubertu in schools has ignored one important argument. What hunters are trying to say and San Ubertu’s especially, is that there is room for hunting – most especially for turtle doves. That’s because the KSU keeps arguing that hunting in Spring is a legitimate past-time, even when Malta faces imminent infringement procedures and penalties from the European Court of Justice.

It is amazing to consider that while the European Union designed the Birds Directive in 1979 as a law that protects biodiversity in Spring, when birds are migrating back to the north to procreate, the Maltese education department in Gozo thinks it is legitimate to promote the culture of killing birds.

KSU seems to think it is right in promoting ‘legal’ hunting (as opposed to what: poaching?) because BirdLife is occupied in promoting its conservationist activities in schools. The false equivalence is galling, because it also fails to capture what the real fight on hunting birds in Malta is about.

It is not only about upholding what the Birds Directive protects, or the fight to conserve biodiversity against a backdrop of the turtle dove being recognised as endangered by the IUCN; it is ultimately a tussle between a lobby of aggressive campaigners – the Maltese hunting fraternity – which has kept the political class to ransom for decades. Only now that both Labour and the Nationalists are enjoying their Stockholm syndrome and relish appearing side by side with the hunting lobbies. Clearly, it is for that reason that the KSU exhibition is being sponsored by the Gozo ministry (also the ministry that regulates hunting); what is surprising is that the education directorate in Gozo was so accommodating about it. Are there no standards about what can take place within a school’s perimeter or some sensitivity about the lobbies that are being welcomed into a school?

Thankfully, the Malta Union of Teachers was there with an unequivocal statement on the San Ubertu exhibition: it does not approve. And with good reason, because every argument in the book for the San Ubertu hunters goes against the teaching and educational projects in schools.

You do not need to allow San Ubertu in the schools to help children understand how bad hunting is – take students out in the countryside and let them watch up close the impact of hunting in the countryside in the early hours of the day, with some protective clothing of course, for fear of the falling pellets, and ear-plugs against the blasphemy of hunters claiming the countryside to themselves as the knights of St Hubert shoot and kill birds to their delight.