The wheels of justice turn too slowly

It is clear that we are looking at more than just a question of ‘inefficiency’, or ‘incompetence’, by any one individual office, but more in the nature of a systemic problem

Without entering into the merits of the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the Sion Grech murder trial, it is abundantly clear that the case itself took far too long to conclude. Incredibly, 18 years elapsed between the murder itself, and the commencement of the trial-by-jury: which, paradoxically, ended up lasting less only a week.

Some of this delay can be put down to difficulties in securing enough evidence against the two suspects. It took eight years, for the instance, for the police to finally arraign Ismael Habesh and Faical Mohouachi in 2013. But while this may be understandable, given the peculiarities of the case: it does little to explain why the subsequent court proceedings were dragged out over a staggering 10 further years.

A closer analysis of the timeline reveals that the case was delayed by several factors: including separate proceedings filed by one of the suspects – Habesh – who challenged the legality of his arrest, on the basis that he was not assisted by a lawyer during interrogation. Habesh went on the win his case in 2017; and the Attorney General’s appeal took an additional four years – until September 2021 – to be rejected by the courts.

Even then, another two years had to elapse before the trial proper could even begin, in January of this year.

As such – regardless of the verdict, a week later – it is safe to say that justice has not been done with Sion Grech: not necessarily because her murderers have never been brought to justice; but because the maxim ‘justice delayed, is justice denied’ applies to this case, as much as any other.

It is, quite frankly, unacceptable that Malta’s justice system is riddled with so many loopholes, that criminal cases are left to crawl on for literally decades. And this particular case exposes at least a few of the systemic hurdles resulting in such intolerable delays.

Consider, for instance, how long every single stage of the legal proceedings – i.e, after the commencement of the trial, in 2013 – actually took to conclude. The compilation of evidence lasted five years: which is in itself remarkable, but by no means unique (the ongoing compilation stage of Yorgen Fenech’s trial, for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, is already in its third year; with no end in sight, as yet).

The legal challenge mounted by Habesh took an additional four years (including the appeal); and even afterwards, there was an unaccountable delay of two more years, before the trial could even begin.

And while it may appear facile, to simply point fingers at individual cogs in the machinery of justice: unfortunately, there is evidence that not all the institutions involved make any effort to expedite proceedings, themselves.

Last October, Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti lambasted the similarly-unacceptable delays in the 2013 Enemalta oil sandal case: pointing out that “in 27 sittings for the compilation of evidence against [former Enemalta chairman] Tarcisio Mifsud, nothing had happened in 15 of these sittings.”

“This kind of delay cannot be attributed to the courts in any way […] but it is undeniably the unique shortcoming of the prosecution as well as of the Attorney General, which tied the hands of the magistrates’ court,” he noted. 

Nonetheless, it is clear that we are looking at more than just a question of ‘inefficiency’, or ‘incompetence’, by any one individual office. Evidently, it is more in the nature of a systemic problem.

In August 2021, Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale – president of the Association of Judges & Magistrates of Malta – wrote a stinging critique, in which he described the situation at the law-courts as ‘critical’.

Depasquale cited a host of shortcomings, including that: “The number of deputy registrars is ever decreasing”; “court clerks are shared with two or three members of the judiciary, thus being unable to cope with the volume of acts and documents presented daily”; “many members of the judiciary are not provided with court assistants, meaning transcription not being delivered in time, thus leading to unnecessary adjournments”.

And the list goes on: court marshals, court messengers and court attorneys are all other areas were trained staff are in critically short-supply. Lastly, the number of active members of the judiciary – although increased, over the years - remains woefully insufficient to handle the sheer backlog of cases.

All of this has a direct bearing on the law-courts’ ability to function in an efficient, timely manner. Yet in their efforts to ‘fix’ the problem, successive Justice Ministers (the incumbent included) have limited their interventions only to tweaking certain aspects of the judicial process itself.

Among the present government’s proposals, for instance, is to remove the ‘compilation of evidence stage’ altogether. Clearly, however, this is a classic case of ‘missing the wood for the trees’ (and what’s more, it could have serious repercussions on the course of justice itself).

But apart from occasional new appointments to judiciary, successive governments have so far failed to address any of the more pressing shortcomings highlighted above: in particular, the addition of much-needed support staff, to assist an already severely overloaded court system.

Clearly, the time has come for a far-reaching, root-and-branch reform of the entire criminal justice system.