Chief Justice: delays, lack of resources main gripes for judges and lawyers

Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti says biggest issue faced by the court is unreasonable delays

Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti (centre) says biggest issue faced by the court is unreasonable delays
Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti (centre) says biggest issue faced by the court is unreasonable delays

Court delays and insufficient resources are the primary concerns for the Chief Justice and Chamber of Advocates as the forensic year begins.

In a ceremony to celebrate the opening of the forensic year, Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti and Chamber of Advocates vice-president Stephen Tonna Lowell detailed several issues being faced by the judiciary and legal professionals in their practice.

Tonna Lowell said that the legal profession is one of the only traditional professions that is not regulated at law. Doctors, psychiatrists, notaries, periti, engineers, accountants, and educators are all regulated by ad-hoc legal acts.

“A serious regulatory structure for our profession is in the public interest more so than it is in the interest of legal professionals themselves.”

He pointed to another problem being faced by the Constitutional court on the imposition of substantial fines from regulators like the FIAU and MFSA. “This Chamber believes that there should be a court or tribunal where minded decisions and imposed fines can be contested by the subject persons.”

He mentioned the compilation of evidence procedure, which is often criticised for the lengthy delays it brings. He said that the procedure is a necessary one as it allows involved parties to scrutinise the evidence.

He said legal changes made to procedure have not been addressed by legislators in a profound or thoroughly thought-out manner.

“The hope of this Chamber is that the compilation system is addressed in such a way that the Court of Magistrates always has access to the procedural acts so that sittings can take place more regularly.”

Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti commented at length on measures that should be taken to strengthen the judiciary. He said the biggest issue faced by the court is unreasonable delays.

He pointed out that there are no delay issues in the Family Appeals Court, Constitutional Court, Public Contracts Review Board and the Land Arbitrage Board.

“The problem is in civil appeals under the old procedure, where appeals must be heard in court.”

He said adding two more judges to the Court of Appeals would help speed up the appeals process.

Chetcuti added that at least two more magistrates need to be appointed to the judiciary, one of which would be needed to hear cases of domestic violence.

“The 1,000-case workload makes it impossible for a magistrate to hear and decide cases within a reasonable time period.”

He said that the two magistrates working on money laundering cases are also finding it diccult to keep up with the volume and complexity of cases in front of them. “This is why we need another magistrate to help them.”

He described another problem being faced by the Rent Regulation Board. “This year there will be over 1,000 requests to increase rent in connection to recent legal amendments.”

“If these cases are removed from the Board’s competences and heard in front of a specialised, ad-hoc tribunal created with constitutional safeguards, it would alleviate the pressure on magistrates hearing these cases.”

When it comes to ad-hoc tribunals, Chetcuti said that the appointment of people to such tribunals and boards is done in a similar way to how judges are appointed, “to ensure competence, independence and impartiality”.

“I’m referring to more sensitive nominations like in the Small Claims Tribunal, Public Contracts Review Board, Environment and Planning Review Board, among others.”

Chetcuti suggested changing the notification procedure. He said that the current procedure involves a lot of manual work from a lot of workers, and in some cases, the person that should have been served a judicial act could not be found.

Instead, Chetcuti recommended using email addresses to serve judicial acts to the parties.

A big issue Chetcuti elaborated on is the physical resources of the courts. “The space in our courts is what it is, and over time the current building is no longer sufficient for the needs of the judicial system.”

He remarked that it is no use increasing the number of courtrooms available without increasing access and accessibility. He went on to recommend that government invest in other buildings in Valletta or in the vicinity so that certain court competences can be moved out of the principal building. These could include the commercial, criminal, and family courts, he said.

“I have sometimes come across people waiting in Strait Street for their family court case to be heard because the building is too small and corridors too narrow to accommodate a certain number of people.”

He added that a new phenomenon is emerging whereby a growing number of lawyers are keener on practicing the profession in the private sector as it pays more money.

“I think it would be wise to have constructive dialogue between the University of Malta, Justice Ministry, and Court so that law students are given more insight into what happens in Court, not only at a theoretical level but also in practice.”

He concluded his speech with a person request. “The judiciary is without distinction, and it can be completely composed of judges that put everyone on the same level. This would not only remove the unjust perception of magistrates being lesser than judges, but also help the Chief Justice split the work without facing an artificial wall when it comes to the competences of the Courts of Inferior and Superior Jurisdictions.”

The ceremony was attended by Justice Minister Jonathan Attard, Opposition leader Bernard Grech, Parliamentary Speaker Anġlu Farrugia and President George Vella.