[WATCH] ‘Compromise’ prescription on sex crimes suitable, minister says

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis says extending the prescription in cases of sexual assault is a good compromise 

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis

Updated at 3:33pm with The Lisa Maria Foundation statement 

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said prescription on cases of sexual assault should remain in place, despite calls from victims and NGOs for its removal on such cases.

Speaking to MaltaToday, after a press conference last Monday, Zammit Lewis said a proposal for the prescription on sexual offences against minors to be extended to 20 years was a suitable compromise.

The significant shake-up extending prescription by five years, starting from when the victim is 23 rather than 18.

“The Maltese system is based on a statute of limitations, and prescriptions are applied in a plethora of different scenarios, not just where sexual assault is concerned.

“Is there a need for a prescription? I believe so – so what I have done is listen to NGOs and victims to come up with a compromise that respects the Maltese legal system and seeks justice for the victims. This is why I have proposed that the prescription should begin when the victim is 23, not 18,” Zammit Lewis said.

Zammit Lewis says his proposal balances what NGOs and victims are telling the government while also retaining a fundamental part of Maltese laws – “with the principle that prescription periods must remain,” he said.

But lawyer and women’s rights activist Lara Dimitrijevic told this newspaper that sexual abuse on minors has a particular characteristic because of the vulnerability of the victim and the serious psychological impact it has on them.

Dimitrijevic highlighted that such offences could take years for a child to process, and it is often well into adulthood before they fully understand and come to terms with what they had been subjected to. “They are robbed of their childhood innocence and youthful adolescence. Perpetrators are often people in authority over the victims, sometimes people who they love and trust. Their abusers have many ways, some subtle, others not so much, to keep the victims quiet,” Dimitrijevic said.

Dimitrijevic said that while the extension was another step in the right direction, the entire period should be removed in such cases as to ensure that survivors are given the full opportunity to seek remedy and have some form of closure to the ordeal that they have been subjected to.

“Prescription periods only cause serious prejudice to the victims, protecting the perpetrator from getting away with it… Imposing a time bar would only put further pressure on the victim to feel that their right to choose whether to report or seek redress and justice is based upon a ticking clock,” she said.

What is a statute of limitations?

A statute of limitations, also known in civil law systems as a prescriptive period, is a law passed by a legislative body to set the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated.

When the time specified in a statute of limitations passes, a claim might no longer be filed or, if it is filed, it may be subject to dismissal if the defence argues that the claim is time-barred.

When a statute of limitations expires in a criminal case, the courts no longer have jurisdiction.

In civil law systems, such provisions are typically part of their civil or criminal codes. The cause of action dictates the statute of limitations, which can be reduced (or extended) in order to ensure a fair trial. These laws intend to facilitate resolution within a “reasonable” length of time.

'Prescription must be scrapped' - The Lisa Maria Foundation

"Society must convey a single message: there can be no loopholes in the legal system, no escaping justice and no compromise contemplated concerning cases of child abuse,” the Lisa Maria Foundation said in reaction to the minister's comment. 

The foundation said abusers should always be reminded that their crimes can never have a use-by date.

The foundation also said it was a fact that many victims need time, often years, to muster the courage to speak about their ordeal and seek justice.

"In many cases, victims know their abusers, making it difficult for victims to blow their cover." 

It argued that the law should create no hurdles for victims to seek justice "whenever they are ready to do so." 

The foundation said while the amendments are a step in the right direction, they are not bold enough. "Prescription must be scrapped. No ifs, no buts and certainly no 'compromise '."