Annus horribilis for the justice system

The events of this week may well be the last straw that broke the camel’s back, at least with regard to the public credibility of a justice system that has been rocked by scandal over the past decade.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The events of this week may well be the last straw that broke the camel's back, at least with regard to the public credibility of a justice system that has been rocked by scandal over the past decade.

Admittedly, the absurd antics of Magistrate Carol Peralta in court may pale into insignificance compared to other, much more serious abuses of power and indicretions involving the judiciary. Certainly it cannot be compared with the 2001 corruption scandal involving former chief justice Noel Arrigo and senior judge Patrick Vella, both convicted of accepting bribes to reduce a drug trafficker's sentence on appeal. Nor does it hold up to a similar scandal that erupted last year, in which another judge, Ray Pace, was charged with corrupt practices.

But both the indiscretion itself - a Christmas party in a courtroom - and, more seriously, the fact that Peralta also apparently abused his position to order the arrest of a journalist without any legal authority to do so, seem to have finally pushed the general public's patience beyond its limits.

Even if the extent of the merry-making going on inside Malta's halls of justice may, in itself, be rather tame, the image of a magistrate who was decribed as swirling a drink in one hand while ordering an illegal arrest cannot but have compounded an existing perception that there is something deeply, deeply wrong with the entire system. And past experience suggests that such issues are not the sole preserve of this one magistrate alone.

This is of course unfair on other members of the judiciary, who do take their responibilities very seriously. But again, this only underscores why such behaviour is unacceptable from a member of the judiciary in a modern democracy. It tars the entire judiciary with the same brush, with the cumulative effect that many people simply no longer trust the law courts at all.

Peralta's subsequent reactions to calls for his resignation only deepened the hole he has dug for himself. He described both the government's and Opposition's opinions in the matter as 'irrelevant'... forgetting that these two entities between them represent over 90% of the population in parliament. By extension, the opinion of nearly all the country is likewise 'irrelevant', according to Peralta. This cannot be tolerated, coming from someone who has taken an oath to serve the Republic he so blithely dismisses.

But the Christmas party in itself is not the real issue here. If it were a one-off it incident it would at most have raised a few eyebrows, with no long-term consequences at all. The matter of an illegal arrest is however more serious: but there are legal procedures that can be adopted in such cases, and while it does certainly look like a blatant abuse of power, this incident, on its own, would probably blow over in no time at all.

The real problem is that such incidents cannot be taken in isolation: not when they come hard on the heels of a steadying crescendo of often absurd stories to emerge from the same law courts. As it now draws to a close, 2013 seems to have an exceptional year for such stories. Last May brought with it the sad revelation that the judge at the heart of the latest corruption scandal was found dead in his home, with a police report confirming that he had died of unnatural circumstances but ruling out foul play (for which there can only be one interpretation). On top of this reminder of the ongoing corruption charges against a judge, the public was also treated to a series of questionable and often contradictory rulings, delivered both at first instance and on appeal. The Daniel Holmes case alone received international attention, compounded by the fact that other equivalent (and sometimes much more serious) drug-related crimes committed by Maltese persons received infinitely lighter sentences by the same courts. There were other similar incongruities in other sentences, some delivered by Magistrate Peralta himself.

This incident therefore appears to be symptomatic of a much deeper malaise, which also involves a glaring lacuna in our country's legislative instruments. It will be remembered that this is not the first time there have been calls for Peralta's impeachment. He was in fact impeached over alleged freemasonry connections in the early 1990s, but the motion was dropped and he was not removed from office.

Meanwhile, the Commission for the Administration of Justice has no executive power to remove a sitting judge from office. We are left with a situation where some judges and magistrates clearly feel - and sometimes behave - as though they are entirely above the law.

The Justice Reform Commission, appointed earlier this year, has addressed this issue in its proposals, which include empowering the Commission to take punitive action against the judiciary. One is therefore inclined to agree with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who said that this latest incident only illustrates the urgent need for precisely such reform.

 

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