Court caseload placing pressure on judiciary and infrastructure, Chief Justice warns

Staff shortages, media sensationalism, and professional secrecy take centre stage at the start of the court year

The two most influential officers of the court have made their speeches marking the start of the court calendar, calling for more investment in human resources and addressing threats to professional secrecy in the legal profession, amongst other issues.

Chief Justice calls for more court staff, less media sensationalism

In his speech marking the opening of the court after the summer break, Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti appealed to the government to address the shortfall in court staff.

Addressing the President of Malta, George Vella, Prime Minister Robert Abela, Leader of the Opposition Bernard Grech and Justice Minister Edward Zammit Louis who were present, together with members of the judiciary, Chetcuti stressed the need for long term planning together with immediate reforms.

The Chief Justice warned that the the increase in caseload was placing pressure on the judiciary, as well as the infrastructure – with only 30 courtrooms to cater for 47 members of the judiciary, space is at a premium. He pointed out that only one courtroom was available for juries and criminal appeals.

He appealed to the media to avoid sensationalism. The media’s voice was essential and should be free in a democracy, even if it is occasionally harsh, he said. Its interventions should be made at the right time and never with the intention of pressuring or impinging on the independence of the judiciary.

He reminded that it was imperative that a judge detach himself from his opinion and personal bias to decide according to justice. Not just in the courtroom but also in his writings, “without extra words which only draws criticism.”  A judge’s view should only be heard in the sentences and provisions he makes, said the Chief Justice.

Professional secrecy must be safeguarded – Chamber of Advocates

The President of the Chamber of Advocates, lawyer Louis Degabriele said that the Chamber will be issuing a practise note regarding professional secrecy later today. This note will contain guidance on how lawyers should react in cases where their professional secrecy is threatened by public authorities in the execution of an inquiry or investigation.

“Honestly, I would never have thought that I would have to defend such a fundamental principle to the legal profession in the year 2021,” remarked the lawyer. “The Chamber cannot remain silent when a lawyer is placed in a situation where he is required to break the law to conform with an order by the inquiring authority. The law is clear and should be given full effect, clearly and unequivocally.”

This professional secrecy is not a privilege of the profession, but a crucial right, Degabriele said. It is fundamentally required in order to allow persons to give their lawyer an accurate picture of the situation, without fear and is protected under the European Convention of Human Rights, he said.

Searches in a professional’s office could breach this secret unless there are adequate safeguards and the European Courts have ruled that special procedures should be in place for such eventualities.

“We should divest ourselves of the idea that legal privilege and professional secrecy are some means of encouraging or protecting criminal activity. The fundamental principle remains that if the investigating authorities want the communications of a lawyer’s client, for evidence of some criminal intention, then the first thing they should do is seize the document or evidence from the client himself and not use the lawyer for this.”

Degabriele also repeated his call for better regulation of the legal profession, saying that the time had come for a new regulatory framework which would bring the profession into the 21st century. He called for coordination between the legislator and the profession in this aspect.

He closed his address with a declaration of solidarity with lawyers who work in the Gozo courts, who are boycotting sittings due to continued administrative shortcomings, saying he hoped the situation would return to normal soon.