The inquiry must reach its conclusions unhindered

Nonetheless, it would be counterproductive if that time limit is now used as a guillotine, to hinder the emergence of a fuller picture for the inquiry board to base its conclusions upon

Much has been said and written about the terms of reference of the public inquiry into the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia: more specifically, into the question of whether the Maltese State was in any way culpable (through its own actions and/or omissions) for this heinous crime.

But while the terms themselves appear to be quite precise, there are certain aspects which remain vague to this day.

This much was evidenced by a statement issued by the Inquiry Board itself, soon after a six-hour session involving the testimony of former OPM chief of staff.

Despite a nine-month deadline stipulated within the terms of reference – which has already been extended until December 15, at the Board’s own request – the three judges have announced they will once again extend proceedings beyond the second deadline, which elapsed yesterday.

This, after the Prime Minister last week predicted that the inquiry would end within the agreed timeframe of December 15. “I believe the inquiry has already had enough time to fulfil its work and I have not received any request to extend,” Robert Abela said.

Added to the fact that the Board of Inquiry also complained about “undue pressure or interference diminishing their brief” – and, on its part, Abela’s government has consistently accused the inquiry of ‘overstepping its remit’, and becoming ‘politicised’ – this has created an unnecessary (though perhaps inevitable) stand-off, which risks undermining the validity of the entire exercise.

And yet, it remains unnecessary: for a closer examination of the terms of reference make it abundantly clear that the decision ultimately rests with the Board itself.

Though the remit includes that “The Board of Inquiry shall endeavour to conclude its work within a time frame of nine months”… this is followed by the all-imporant proviso, “without prejudice to the proper fulfilment of these terms of reference.”

Moreover: “[The Board of Inquiry’] shall, subject to these terms of reference, regulate its own procedure on all matters […]”: including, presumably, the question of when – and under what circumstances – it deems that its work has been satisfactorily concluded.

Government is therefore quite simply wrong to presume that it retains the authority to impose a strict deadline …. or, for that matter, that its permission is even needed to extend the deadline further.

But – by the same token – the Board of Inquiry is also admitting that it has not so far ‘concluded its work properly’… despite a four-month extension to the original deadline. And this is also due to the fact that the inquiry did indeed at times go overboard in probing secondary issues, which pale into insignificance in the grander scheme of things.

It is also true that the inquiry often appeared to be a witch hunt against the current Labour administration, with very little effort to understand the workings of the Maltese State, warts and all, as inherited over the years.

Part of the fault lies with the judges themselves, for allowing so much of the proceedings to be dictated by the Caruana Galizia family lawyers: who happen to be prominent Opposition MPs (a fact which inevitably contributed to the charge of ‘politicisation’).

Nonetheless, these deficiencies do not add up to a valid excuse for government to exceed its own remit, by imposing a fresh deadline on the inquiry. Nor does it lessen the suspicion that government has its own vested interests in ensuring that the board is not, in fact, given all the resources it needs (including time) to conclude its work.

To be fair, Abela’s insistence on expediency may indeed be in good faith. After all, the original inclusion of a 9-month limit had been agreed between the government and representatives of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family; and to ensure the family and the country are delivered some form of closure within the shortest time possible.

Nonetheless, it would be counterproductive if that time limit is now used as a guillotine, to hinder the emergence of a fuller picture for the inquiry board to base its conclusions upon. It is, after all, in nobody’s interest that an inquiry like this, with all its ramifications, ends on a sour note for dubious procedural reasons.

One must also bear in mind, however, that this inquiry is not just about the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia; but also about the precise workings of the Maltese State. One can only hope, then, that the eventual conclusions not only provide some form of comfort and justice to the Caruana Galizia family, but also give an insight into how procedures, institutions and functions of the State can improve.

If this requires more time… so be it. Either way, the judges were fully within their rights to extend proceedings; and all things considered, government would be unwise to intervene.