Unjust for police to charge people ‘just to play it safe’, new judge says

In her first sitting, Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera has called for a more rigorous system of scrutiny to ensure police charge only bona fide cases • The aim of punishment should be rehabilitation, she says

Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera
Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera

Charging people in court to play the safe card is unjust, a new judge has said as she called for police prosecutions to target the right people.

Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera called for the introduction of a more rigorous system of scrutiny to ensure only bona fide cases were prosecuted.

“It is not just to have people charged by the police just to play it safe,” she said in her first sitting after being appointed judge last month.

Scerri Herrera said better scrutiny would increase efficiency and avoid causing trauma to wrongly charged people.

“Better scrutiny [prior to filing charges] would also ensure that punishment would be handed down close in time to the crime to maximise the punishment’s value,” the judge said.

Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera spoke to a packed courtroom in her first sitting
Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera spoke to a packed courtroom in her first sitting

The first sitting for any member of the judiciary is a ceremonial occasion during which the person delivers an address in open court.

Scerri Herrera’s sitting happened in a packed courtroom on Wednesday morning in the presence of President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, Transport Minister Ian Borg, lawyers, members of the judiciary and assorted well-wishers from different points in Scerri Herrera’s 21-year career.

The judge will be presiding appeals from the courts of magistrates and jury trials.

She reminisced on the highlights of her career. Scerri Herrera thanked her family for their support, in particular her father, the late judge Joseph Herrera, who she said was the “icon of my life” in all things related to justice.

“A good judge is one who applies the law correctly, a just judge is one who applies the law with justice,” Scerri Herrera said, adding that proportionality, belief in human dignity and knowledge of the realities of society at large were crucial attributes of good judges.

She noted with pride that she had left no backlog of cases to her successor in the magistrates’ court.

Judge pitches for rehabilitation

Scerri Herrera’s strong work ethic was highlighted once again when she started allocating sittings to cases from last year in order to deal with her new workload and ensure justice is delivered in a reasonable time.

“How can I be just, if in my conscience, I know that I created conditions which prevent the person from reintegrating himself into society? I don’t feel that it is right that a person is condemned to prison and while his appeal is pending and is out on bail, he possibly reforms himself only to have his sentence confirmed. The first aim of punishment should not be to deter others and neither should it be retribution, but rehabilitation.”

Scerri Herrera touched upon many issues in her speech, including her wish for reform of the legal aid system to include a means test.

There was also a need for a list of lawyers who specialise in criminal law so as to give the interrogated person the best assistance possible, she added.

The judge hoped for closer collaboration between the probation services office and the criminal court, saying the priceless work done by officials is not given its due credit.

Probation officers are the “long arm of the court” and assist it in reaching its conclusions in many cases.

Scerri Herrera thanked the Prime Minister for nominating her for this position.

Last year a judicial appointments committee had recommended against her appointment to judge after it found her unfit for the role, not over matters of competence but over her conduct in her private life.

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She was subsequently nominated again for the post and the committee gave its all clear this year.

Scerri Herrera also thanked her partner Robert Musumeci for his “great patience” as she spent hours at her desk. She also thanked her loyal staff.

George Hyzler, the president of the Chamber of Advocates noted in his speech that over her 21 years as magistrate, Scerri Herrera had covered all aspects of the law.

He praised her control in the courtroom and the timeliness of her judgments, as well as her efficiency and thirst for knowledge.

Scerri Herrera smiled and nodded with thanks.

But Hyzler did not shy away from criticising new members of the judiciary who were holding sittings in summer, saying this violated the rules of court, although he added, he admired their eagerness.

A reception was then held.