Expediting justice requires investment

It is manifestly useless to simply stamp our feet, and demand a faster and more efficient justice system... unless we are also willing to put our money where our mouth is, and invest in the necessary resources

To anyone with any experience of the Maltese justice system, the conclusion of the European parliament’s civil liberties delegation will have come as no surprise. 

Dutch MEP Sophie In’t Veld, chairperson of the rule of law working group in the committee, described Malta’s judicial process as “excruciatingly slow”, owing to a lack of visible investigation and prosecution. 

“It’s shocking that in four-and-a-half years since the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia no justice has been served,” she pointed out. “The alleged mastermind has not yet been convicted.” 

Yet the Daphne Caruana Galizia trial is but one of several cases – including for murder, but also money laundering, drug trafficking, corruption of minors, criminal association, falsification of documents and rape – that are still ongoing, years after the crime took place. 

Last year, this newspaper revealed that there were 77 pending trials by jury in Maltese courts, with the longest ones stretching back to 2013. That figure does not include cases before the Magistrate’s Court. 

Nine of those pending juries concerned attempted and successful homicides, with the case awaiting trial the longest going back to 2014. Eleven cases have been awaiting trial for two years; 10 have been awaiting trial for six years; 13 going back three years which are yet to face trial; and six have been waiting for seven years to be assigned a jury. 

These figures, however, all concern cases that have yet to come to trial. As such, they tell us nothing about the length of time it usually takes for such cases to go through the entire judicial process – including compilation of evidence, trial and appeal stages – before reaching a final verdict.  

Incredibly, some cases have been known to drag on not just for years, but decades: the most notorious being arguably the case filed by former owners of the National Bank of Malta in 1992... which took a staggering 22 years to reach closure, in 2014.  

From these and other examples, it is abundantly clear that there is more to the issue than merely a ‘lack of visible investigation and prosecution’, as suggested by Int’ Velt (although that concern certainly does exist, especially with regard to corruption cases).  

Nor is it particularly helpful to use the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder trial as an example. For although that trial is indeed proceeding ‘excruciatingly slowly’ – four and a half years later, we are still at compilation of evidence stage – the fact remains that it is a rather ‘suis generis’ case: characterised, among other things, by an unprecedented amount of material evidence (including thousands of hours’ worth of recorded conversations and messages) being submitted in court. 

All this evidence has to be thoroughly scrutinised (if nothing else, to ensure that it has been legally collected) before the trial-by-jury can even begin.  

And with good reason, too: for the whole point of a ‘compilation of evidence’ stage is to prevent the future trial from being thrown out of court on a mere technicality. 

Given that the consequences of such a scenario, in this particular case, would appear deeply suspicious: it may be unwise to demand too much haste, at this delicate stage of proceedings. 

Nonetheless, this does not excuse the justice system for progressing at such a snail’s pace, at virtually all other levels. And the lethargy cannot be attributed only to problems at investigation/prosecution stage, either.  

Clearly, a significant part of the issue also boils down to a simple question of resources. Are our law courts properly equipped – in terms of both human, and non-human resources – to handle a case-load of such gargantuan proportions? Do we have enough judges and magistrates? And – more pertinently – do our judges and magistrates have enough in the way of support-staff? 

There can be no doubt about it: the answer to all those questions has to be a resounding ‘No’.  

This was spelt out quite directly, in a rare statement issued by the The Association for Judges and Magistrates in February 2021. 

The author of that statement, Judge Francesco Depasquale, complained that the Maltese judiciary “was facing too big a volume of work, and that EU data had shown Malta has half the number of judges required per 100,000 of its population when compared to the rest of the bloc.” 

But the shortage of judiciary appears to be the least of the problems. The AJM also argued that each member of the judiciary must have a sizeable complement of personnel to handle shortcomings inside the court registry, and to assist the new members of the Bench.  

“Without personnel we cannot work efficiently or effectively. A long-term plan is needed for the investment in and attraction of trained and competent individuals who assist the judiciary.” 

But as Depasquale also points out: “This problem has simply never been resolved by any government”. 

To be fair, there have been a few attempts to address these shortcomings, over the years. But they have clearly not delivered the desired results. 

From this perspective, it is manifestly useless to simply stamp our feet, and demand a faster and more efficient justice system... unless we are also willing to put our money where our mouth is, and invest in the necessary resources.