Justice must be a level playing field

In all self-respecting judicial systems, the severity of the crime will be the first consideration in any bail request. In Malta, basic principles are all applied by the law-courts... but at a glance, it cannot be said that they are always applied evenly

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It is usually unwise to draw too many conclusions about a country’s justice system, from comparisons between different individual cases. Ultimately, most people’s knowledge of the legal process arises from press coverage of court sessions: and while the media likes to think it offers a comprehensive overview, the reality is that many of the nuances of any given case will not make it into the printed article or televised bulletin.

Judges and magistrates are often compelled to take extenuating factors into account, when delivering verdicts, or taking decisions such as whether or not to grant bail. In many cases, this will give rise to perceptions of ‘double standards’ that might not, in truth, be double standards at all.

Nonetheless, it is equally unwise to exclude such comparisons a priori. It is, after all, a basic prerequisite of any justice system to see to it that the justice it delivers is fair and equitable to all concerned.

It was, therefore, with some surprise that this newspaper reported that bail was granted this week to three men accused of a violent attempted murder, under circumstances reminiscent of other equivalent crimes that received different treatment from the courts.

The men in question – Lorenzo Callus, known as ‘Ħeswes’, Paul Farrugia, known as ‘Kwattru’, and Jonathan Farrugia, known as ‘Ġanni ta’ Nina’ – are charged with the attempted murder of Mario Scicluna and his partner Elaine Galdes, using a car bomb.

Callus was also charged with carrying a weapon without a licence on the day of his arrest, as well as the possession of a cannabis plant, cannabis resin and an unspecified quantity of heroin. Paul Farrugia was charged with the possession of a large quantity of contraband cigarettes which were found by police in a garage named Flower Way, in Xghajra, on the 15 March. More cigarettes were found in a Peugeot Partner that was intercepted by police.

It is to be noted that police investigations into the failed car-bomb attempt in Fgura last January also led to the discovery of contraband cigarettes, explosives and drugs.

All three were granted bail on Thursday, against a €70,000 personal guarantee and a €30,000 deposit. They were also ordered to sign the bail book at the police station every day, between 6am and 9pm.

Without interfering with the merits of the case itself, it automatically raises eyebrows when bail is granted for such serious crimes. In theory, planting a car-bomb could place more lives, than just the intended victims’, in peril. The bomb might have gone off in the middle of busy traffic – as indeed happened in Msida last year – or as the car drove past pedestrians.

Even without that consideration, the nature of the crime calls to mind the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia just under a year ago. This forces us to make comparisons, no matter how odious, between how the law-courts reacted to bail requests in either case.

Then as now, three men were charged with planting a car-bomb with a view to committing murder – successfully, this time – but all three have been refused bail, and remain in custody at the Corradino Correctional Facility.

Significantly, Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit denied bail in light of the gravity of the crimes they were being accused of, and the fear that they could abscond or commit another crime.

There is no immediate reason why those concerns should apply to Caruana Galizia murder case, but not to the attempted murder of two people in similar ways. One cannot seriously entertain the argument that one case deserves different treatment, because it involved a successful murder attempt instead of an unsuccessful one. The intention was the same in both cases: which also means that the ‘fear that [the suspects] could abscond or commit another crime’ is equally well-founded in both.

Nor can we allow the view – which is certainly true, on a superficial level – that Daphne Caruana Galizia’s case was more shocking, in part because the victim was a well-known public figure, whose murder traumatised the country more than others. To argue that way would be to condone a system where justice is served differently, on the basis of the identity of the victim. It would be an injustice, all unto itself.

Unfortunately, this leaves us with the uncomfortable conclusion that the difference may be down to the idiosyncrasies of individual judges and magistrates. For while – admittedly – jurisprudence must leave a little room for discretion by the judiciary, there should surely be clear and fixed rules of engagement – applicable equally to everyone – whereby such decisions are taken.

In all self-respecting judicial systems, the severity of the crime will be the first consideration in any bail request. Some of the more common reasons for bail denial are: numerous penal code violations, prior escape from prison, or if the judge believes the suspect is a flight risk and will not appear in court. 

In Malta, these basic principles are all applied by the law-courts... but at a glance, it cannot be said that they are always applied evenly. If justice is to be seen to be done... it must also be seen to be done on a level-playing field.