Justice for Jean Paul: Prime Minister, do the right thing

Robert Abela must do the right thing and set up a public inquiry in the Sofia case so that the young man’s family but also society can experience justice in its fullest form

The final vote on the Opposition’s motion to hold a public inquiry into the tragic death of Jean Paul Sofia will be held on Wednesday, allowing a few more days of reflection. 

Sofia, 20, died last December when a building still under construction collapsed. The young man was buried alive and his body only recovered from beneath the rubble almost 17 hours later. In the incident, five other workers were injured, some critical. 

Sofia’s death shocked the nation. His young age undoubtedly left its mark on the collective psyche but so did the shocking CCTV footage that emerged hours later, which showed how the building collapsed in a blink of an eye. To the trained eye, it was obvious that the construction methods employed on site were lacking in skill. 

Unfortunately, the magisterial inquiry into the tragedy remains without a conclusion more than seven months after it happened. 

The court-appointed expert has delivered his report, so much so, that last March the magistrate gave the clearance for the remains of the collapsed building to be demolished. 

Nobody knows what is holding up Magistrate Marsanne Farrugia from concluding the inquiry, which will determine who is criminally responsible for Sofia’s death. In legal circles she has a reputation of dragging her feet. 

Within this context, the Prime Minister is right in calling out the delay and putting pressure on the Chief Justice to ensure the inquiry is concluded as quickly as possible. It would be better if similar pressure is applied by the Opposition. The judiciary is independent but cannot function as if it operates in a vacuum. The judiciary cannot be swayed by public opinion because that would be a disservice to justice but it has to be sensitive to society’s expectations. 

This is an occasion where criticism of the judiciary is warranted because the delay remains incomprehensible to any right-thinking individual. An inquiry into the death of Miriam Pace three years ago – she died after her house collapsed because of excavations taking place in a nearby construction site – was concluded in a couple of months and those responsible charged with causing her death. 

However, this inexplicable delay should not be the reason why a public inquiry must be held. God forbid the search for justice takes us down alternative routes intended to bypass the justice system’s inefficiency. The inefficiency must be fixed but that is a subject for another day. 

The value of a public inquiry is to probe matters and seek answers that go beyond the particular case being investigated. The aim of any public inquiry is to determine whether the apparatus of the State functioned as it should, or whether there are lacunas in the system that have to be addressed. 

The tragedy that killed Sofia came just under three from the Miriam Pace tragedy in Hamrun. The Hamrun disaster had come after a series of building collapses caused by construction work. 

In the aftermath of the Pace tragedy, Prime Minister Robert Abela had appointed a panel led by a retired judge to review the laws and oversight systems governing the construction sector. Led by retired judge Lawrence Quintano, the panel did not have the vestiges of a public inquiry but its conclusions spurned a fresh round of reforms, not least the setting up of the Building and Construction Authority. 

It is evident that not enough was done in the aftermath of the Pace tragedy to prevent the death of Sofia in December 2022. This is one reason why a public inquiry now is warranted. 

There is widespread concern that the failure to control the cowboys in the construction sector is the result of political appeasement not to ruffle the feathers of those who finance the campaigns of politicians and political parties. Whether this concern is legitimate is a moot point but it is not borne out of thin air. 

The law regulating the financing of political parties remains unenforceable and the loopholes glaring. The relentless emphasis by governments of whatever hue on the importance of the construction sector to the economy – even if overstated – is another contributing factor to this popular concern. 

This is another reason to hold a public inquiry. It should be an inquiry with a remit that covers the construction sector and how we regulate it. It should lift the lid on whether and how policy makers are influenced by the construction sector. It should determine whether the rules in place are enough and if they are actually being enforced. It should delve into how public land is given off to people in business with dubious character. 

The terms of the public inquiry should be discussed with the Sofia family but they should be wide enough to go beyond the particular case. 

This leader agrees with the Opposition’s call for a public inquiry but cannot see the point of having this appointed by a two-thirds majority in parliament. This last provision is an unnecessary hurdle and a recipe to get nothing done. The inquiry should be appointed by the Prime Minister following consultation with the family, similar to what happened with the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry. 

Robert Abela has so far steadfastly refused a public inquiry in the Sofia case. An exercise of public scrutiny of the construction sector and its regulation, it seems, is one step too far for him. Unfortunately, his stubbornness only serves to fuel the perception that people in construction can do as they please because they are shielded by those in power. 

Abela must defeat this perception. He must do the right thing and set up a public inquiry in the Sofia case so that the young man’s family but also society can experience justice in its fullest form.