The travails of Maltese justice

Two and a half years after the Justice Reform Commission finalised its recommendations, most of them are gathering dust

Maltese justice, it seems, is not just blindfolded. It has lost its way! - Michael Falzon
Maltese justice, it seems, is not just blindfolded. It has lost its way! - Michael Falzon

One of the first actions taken by the newly elected Joseph Muscat administration in 2013 was the appointment of the Justice Reform Commission chaired by Giovanni Bonello, a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights.

It is an open secret that the government pushed the commission to finalise its recommendations in as short a time as possible and its final report – that included no fewer than 450 recommendations – was handed to the government in the first week of December 2013.

Owen Bonnici, then Parliamentary Secretary for Justice, said the government would move ahead quickly on the proposals about which there was consensus. In the more sensitive areas, such as the disciplinary mechanism for the judiciary, the government would thread carefully and consult all parties.

Two and a half years later most of the recommendations are gathering dust. Reforms in this sector apparently always move at a snail’s pace, irrespective of who is in government.

Although statistics show that the backlog in undecided cases has slightly decreased, there are currently too many problems in this sector – most of them the result of the powers that be dragging their feet.

Three of the problems are indeed worrisome. The first one – that was inherited from the previous administration – concerns the rights of arrested persons to be assisted by a lawyer during questioning. Persons found guilty of a crime as a result of statements made to the police when they were not assisted by a lawyer have been placed in a position where they are successfully pleading that the process was in breach of their human rights... and a veritable can of worms has been opened.

Recently in a case instituted by the GWU the Constitutional Court decided that various articles in the law setting up the Industrial Tribunal were in breach of the principle guaranteeing a fair hearing. This was the opening of yet another can of worms. Almost 600 cases before the Industrial Tribunal have been on hold for more than four months as Parliament has yet to approve changes to the law guaranteeing impartiality.

As if two cans of worms were not enough, we have now seen the opening of yet another when it was revealed that a lawyer who was found guilty by a London court of theft and fraud was serving as a court expert in Malta, even in sensitive cases connected to fraud and falsification of documents.

The report of the Justice Reform Commission had, in fact, proposed a complete revamp in the way court experts are appointed, including due diligence on their integrity and criminal record before being appointed to act as court officials. It had also suggested the drawing up of experts’ registers so that all those qualified can be listed and made available to the judiciary.

The Chamber of Advocates has even called the current experts appointment system “a racket” where what mattered was how friendly experts were with magistrates and police inspectors.

Following the revelation of this court expert’s past crimes, the Court of Appeal upheld a request by two persons contesting his report on calligraphy because this expert had a criminal record involving the falsification of documents.

The judges said it was not only in the interest of those making the claim but also “in the general interest of the administration of justice” that the particular expert’s report was to be removed from the records of the case and not given any weight.

This judgment put all those cases where this particular expert was involved in a legal limbo.

I thought I had heard enough. 

But it was not to be.

Earlier this week Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi in Parliament read parts of a letter sent to him by Emanuel Camilleri, who spent more than a year in jail after his daughter had accused him of molesting her. His daughter subsequently pleaded guilty to perjury. 

The Maltese legal system does not allow for a court decision to be reviewed when new evidence pointing to a possible miscarriage of justice emerged – except in cases of a trial by jury. 

Although the witness whose evidence landed Mr Camilleri in jail had subsequently testified that she had given false evidence, there is no remedy to remove his guilty verdict. Mr Camilleri is up against a blank wall.

No wonder he wrote: “I have not as yet been declared innocent and my name is still on the paedophile register for all to see. This situation has ill effects on me, physically, mentally and psychologically and I am moving into more of a depressed state.”

Maltese justice, it seems, is not just blindfolded. It has lost its way!

The right to bear arms

Since the early morning massacre in Orlando last Sunday, there have been many other shooting incidents in the United States. These were unreported in the international press because shooting incidents in the US are as common as rain. In fact in the US there have been a staggering 133 shootings in 2016 alone.

Those who claim, with a straight face, that gun violence isn’t a problem in the US must be out of their minds.

The New York Times reported earlier this week about just how uncommon firearm-related deaths are in other advanced democracies. According to this report, the odds of gun deaths in Japan are as likely as lightning strike fatalities in the United States.

The number of easily accessible weapons of war in the US, combined with a broken background check system, is a dream come true for those who want to do harm in the US where terrorists or crazy people have easy access to guns.

This is the result of the obsession with the Constitutional ‘right’ that US citizens have ‘to bear arms’ – a constitutional dictum that was conceived in other times and was surely not meant to be interpreted as meaning that every US citizen has a right to buy and carry an assault weapon designed for warfare.

Yet the National Rifle Association (NRA) seems to hold the majority of US politicians hostage on this issue.

To the extent that a proposal to give the attorney general broad authority to stop individuals on the terror watchlist from being able to buy a gun or explosives was blocked because it would negatively impact Americans who are not tied to terrorism and violate their constitutional rights by stopping them from buying a gun without court approval.

Democracy gone awry!

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