No conflict between public inquiries and criminal investigations

It is of vital importance that the information gathered from these individual inquiries is shared to better inform the legislator on what is going wrong with this sector

Prime Minister Robert Abela has recently dismissed calls for a public inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia: the 20-year-old victim of last December’s fatal building collapse.

In reply to a parliamentary question, the Prime Minister noted that there is already a magisterial inquiry into this case, while other relevant authorities are also conducting their own investigations. “If we really want justice, these institutions need to be allowed to work in serenity,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s reply was practically identical to the one he gave following another fatal construction incident, in 2021.  Back then, Abela argued that a public inquiry would interfere with the ongoing criminal proceedings: “When institutions are functioning, you can’t just take their work away from them and place it in a public inquiry.”

But Abela seems to be ignoring a crucial difference between ‘criminal investigations’ (including magisterial inquiries), which address the criminal responsibilities in any particular case; andthe need for a public inquiry, aimed at both identifying the institutional shortcomings that may have led to the accident; and also, establishing protocols to prevent such cases from recurring in future.  

Moreover: while magisterial inquiries are important in the painstaking task of assigning criminal culpability; a public inquiry is also necessary, because it should pave the way towards a national healing process.

Naturally, one does not exclude another; and a public inquiry is certainly no substitute for the ongoing investigations to establish criminal responsibilities in the Sofia case.  (Likewise, the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry was not intended to ‘replace’ the judicial processes against individuals involved in her murder; but it did prove instrumental, in establishing the wider political and structural deficiencies that led to her assassination.)

But the fact that more than three months have elapsed since the tragedy, and nobody has yet been charged with the death of Sofia – as well as the injuries caused to five others - remains mind-boggling.  In fact, one of the tasks of a public inquiry would surely be to investigate why it remains so difficult for the State to establish criminal responsibilities, in such cases.

Another priority should be to draw up recommendations on how to tackle the identified shortcomings. In the Daphne inquiry, for example: after a series of hearings - some held in public; and others in private - the board also came up with a detailed report on what can be done about the deficiencies at State level.

This is important: for while a magisterial inquiry can only establish responsibilities according to the country’s current laws; a public inquiry can go a step further, by questioning whether the existing legislation and penalties are adequate.

But this should not be limited to any one specific case. After consulting family members of the victims, the government could set the terms of reference for a public inquiry into all - and not just one - of the various construction fatalities which have occurred in the past years. 

The judiciary members entrusted with such an inquiry would have the power to summon stakeholders, architects, state regulators, developers and politicians: with the aim of drafting a report aimed at establishing the shortcomings, and making recommendations and solutions to address them.  

In particular, this inquiry should investigate whether there is enough political and administrative will to confront the situation: in a sector which is experiencing massive growth; and which is known for generally ‘conditioning’ the entire political class. 

Just as the Daphne inquiry had investigated the political climate of intimidation and impunity which led to her assassination, this inquiry should also investigate whether construction deaths are in any way related to a culture of impunity, and the political influence wielded by major industry players.  

It should also examine whether current penalties and sanctions are enough of a deterrent for those responsible.   This would throw a spotlight on a sector marred by irregularities; and provide the country with a much-needed ‘X Ray’, upon which legislative action can be based.  

Moreover, one major contribution of holding a public inquiry would be the compilation of information gathered during all the various individual inquiries, in order to establish an identifiable pattern.   One major shortcoming in Malta is that the data and information compiled by magistrates, when dealing with particular cases, is not shared in a way which can inform the legislator about what needs to be done.

At present, 87 of the magisterial inquiries into workplace deaths and injuries, that have occurred over the last seven years, still remain open. The list, dating back to 2015, shows that magistrates are still investigating 29 workplace fatalities: most of which involve foreigners who lost their life on construction sites.  

It is of vital importance that the information gathered from these individual inquiries is shared to better inform the legislator on what is going wrong with this sector.  Moreover, one key task of any public inquiry would be to investigate why so many of these inquiries are still open after so many years. 

Clearly, then, there is no conflict between the ongoing criminal investigations, and the need for a public inquiry into construction fatalities. There only seems to be a reluctance, on the government’s part.