Justice requires quality, not just quantity

It is clear that government cannot claim, at this stage, to have given the justice system all the resources it needs, to carry out its functions expeditiously; neither on the ‘quantity’ side, nor – even less – when it comes to ‘quality

In its efforts to expedite Malta’s sluggish justice system, the government faces an uphill struggle on two fronts. Clearly, the judicial is in dire need of an upgrade in terms of manpower and support-structures. But equally clearly, there is need for such posts to be filled with people of integrity, and with the operational capabilities to succeed on the job.

In the immediacy, however, the main challenge is to respond to a demand for greater resources. For several years now, members of the judiciary (and other facets of the court system) have been arguing that the law-courts are too under-staffed, and under-equipped, to deal with the ever-growing backlog of cases.

This problem has only grown more urgent in recent years: partly because of an exponential increase in Malta’s population: which inevitably results in an increase in both crime, and criminal proceedings. And unless there is a corresponding boost to the resources available to the law-enforcement sector – including also the police – the problems with our already encumbered law-courts can only be expected to grow.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that government understands the ‘quantity’ side of the problem, at least – as evidenced by the recent appointment of four new magistrates to the bench – but unfortunately, it still remains a drop in the ocean, compared to the amount of resources that are actually required.

Among the chief complaints raised by the judiciary, for instance, concerns the lack of support staff available to magistrates, to help with the caseload. It is this stumbling-block – far more than the lack of actual magistrates – that contributes to the lengthy delays involved in so many trials.

Very often, court-hearings are deferred simply because (among many other issues) the transcripts will have not been delivered on time; or because of a failure to properly notify appellants beforehand. This points towards a lack of support-staff – namely court assistants and messengers, in this instance – and not merely towards an undersupply of serving judges or magistrates.

From this perspective, Prime Minister Robert Abela was perhaps being disingenuous, with his claim that: “We allocated all the resources that were asked of us by the court.” In truth, those ‘allocated resources’ fell far short of the demands made by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, in his annual address last October; or by the President of the Association of Judges and Magistrates, Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale, in an open letter published in August 2021.

For the record, those demands included not just additional manpower: but also improved working conditions (including salaries) for court-employees. As Chief Justice Chetcuti put it: “lawyers are keener on practicing the profession in the private sector as it pays more money.” And this becomes particularly significant, when one considers the second hurdle facing the justice system: the need to attract top-quality legal minds, to fill the more sensitive, critical posts.

It is already bad enough that judges and magistrates – posts which require years of experience at the bar – can only be filled by lawyers: many of whom will have to abandon a far more lucrative career in the private sector, for an underpaid (and, truth be told, somewhat thankless) job on the bench.

To be fair, the recent appointments mark a new development on this front. For the first time in recent history, magistrates have been chosen directly from the private sector – instead of being promoted directly from the AG’s office, as was common practice previously. The fact that no fewer than 12 applications were received (of whom four were selected) also provides hope for the future.

Nonetheless, the judicial bench faces a daunting task of enticing successful lawyers away from private practice, and into the public service. And while this may be par for the course, even in other professions and areas of employment: it becomes particularly troublesome, when it comes to addressing the most glaring problems at the law-courts.

Namely, the lacklustre record in criminal prosecutions, as a result of substandard prosecution. As aptly noted by our court reporter Matthew Agius: there has been a noticeable decline in standards – as well as results – within the Office of the Attorney General, in recent years. And unlike the case with the justice shortage: there has been no sign, so far, of any efforts to address this problem.

On the contrary: the AG’s office has continued to ‘lose’ high-performing prosecutors to the private sector: including Charles Mercieca who (inauspiciously) left in 2020 to join the defence team of Yorgen Fenech, accused of masterminding Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder in 2017.

Moreover, it seems (even from the results) that these are being replaced by “inexperienced or underachieving prosecutors, some practically straight out of university and with little to no experience in private practice.”

It cannot escape notice that this state of affairs may even benefit certain ‘interested parties’ – as already suggested by the outcome of recent high-profile money-laundering cases – to the detriment of the rule of law.

Either way, however: it is clear that government cannot claim, at this stage, to have given the justice system all the resources it needs, to carry out its functions expeditiously; neither on the ‘quantity’ side, nor – even less – when it comes to ‘quality