State ordered to compensate couple over 'uncomplicated' case decided after nearly 20 years

The couple is awarded €3,000 in damages from the State for unjustified delays 

A court case over an unpaid delivery of confectionary goods took 19 years, seven months and 44 days to be decided
A court case over an unpaid delivery of confectionary goods took 19 years, seven months and 44 days to be decided

A couple have been awarded €3,000 in damages from the State for unjustified delays they had suffered in a court case over an unpaid delivery of confectionary goods which took 19 years, seven months and 44 days to be decided.

Michael and Emanuela Sammut had been defendants in a civil case filed in the year 2000, which had been finally been concluded at appeal stage in March 2020. In that decision, the Court of Appeal in its Superior jurisdiction had ordered the Sammuts to pay €4,658 to the other party – plus some €7,000 in interests.

Aggrieved by this decision, the couple sued the State for a violation of their right to justice within a reasonable time, requesting compensation for this breach and for the interest which they had been forced to pay through no fault of their own.

The defendant in this case, the State Advocate, had replied to the claim and argued, amongst other things, that there was no upper time limit in which court cases are to be decided. The State Advocate had submitted that it was “clear” that the blame for the delays lay with the plaintiffs who had “dragged their feet” in bringing forward their evidence.

The First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction, presided by Madam Justice Joanne Vella Cuschieri, noted that the right to court decisions in proceedings which dealt with rights or civil obligations, within a reasonable time was enshrined in Article 39 of the Constitution, as well as Article six of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge pointed out that the original case was not a complicated one, even when taking into consideration the counter-claim filed by the Sammuts. The defendants in that case had finished exhibiting their evidence six months after the case had been filed. But another eight years would pass before the rest of the evidence was heard, due to several factors, including changes to the presiding magistrate, no-shows, and other complications.

After oral submissions were completed in June 2014, judgment was handed down in that same sitting. An appeal was then filed in December 2014, but the first sitting was set four years later and final judgment was handed down in March 2020.

Many of the sittings during the span of the case were adjourned for no reason at the request of the parties, noted the court, which observed that both parties shared the blame for this. The four-year wait for a appeal sitting date was not the result of inefficiencies in court, but were “the result of many shortcomings in the judicial system as established by the State,” including the limited and insufficient number of members of judiciary and the great shortage of qualified court staff. “The State alone is to blame for these shortcomings, and nobody else,” said the court.

The judge agreed with the State Advocate’s argument that only moral damages ought to be awarded in this case, both in the light of jurisprudence on the issue, as well as the fact that some of the delays were partly the fault of the plaintiffs. The Courts themselves were also partly to blame for this, as they had “lost control over the proceedings, by allowing the case to continue to be uselessly adjourned for a number of years.”

The judge ruled that awarding the couple €3,000 in compensation would be “equitable and just” in the circumstances as well as in view of the fact that the original case was over a small value.

Lawyer Ryan Ellul appeared for the couple.