The Malta Independent 15 April 2021, Thursday

TMIS Editorial - Judiciary: A chance to get it right

Sunday, 14 February 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

The government has issued a public call for the appointment of four new judges and will shortly be issuing a similar call for the appointment of new magistrates.

This is a very welcome development, given the lack of sitting judges and magistrates, and the backlog of court cases.

But two arguments must be made here: the first is that the government has to get it right this time and the new appointments cannot be seen as being nepotistic; the second is that boosting the judiciary’s ranks alone is not enough.

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In a statement on Thursday, the government said this will be the first time ever that the process to appoint new judges and magistrates will be independent from the Executive.

The process, it explained, will be managed by a Judicial Appointments Committee presided over by the Chief Justice. Applicants will be scrutinised and the committee will suggest a list of the most suitable candidates to the President, so he may decide who to appoint.

“This is another essential measure, continuing the work of the administration of Prime Minister Robert Abela, to enhance the rule of law in our country,” the government said.

While we truly hope that the new system works as intended - free from political pressure - this remains to be seen. We say this because the system can still be abused.

While the government can no longer handpick judges and magistrates directly, the system is not completely fool proof. What happens if eight eligible applicants are shortlisted and four of them have Labour Party backgrounds? Will they be the chosen ones? If they are the ones who end up getting the job, the ‘new’ system would prove to be pointless.

One hopes that the government will not interfere in any way in the process and will not try to exert any form of pressure on the President to have its preferred people chosen for the job.

Some of the judicial appointments made over the past few years smacked of nepotism.

And despite the fact that many of the judges and magistrates appointed under Labour administrations have proved to be well-qualified and above politics, the fact that so many of them came from the same background still gave rise to the impression that the courts are hijacked by the executive. This time, the government has a chance to do it right.

The government also said in its statement that, with the appointment of these new judges and magistrates, the Judicial Bench shall have the largest number of members ever to serve in the Maltese Courts. In addition to the Chief Justice, Malta will have 24 judges and 25 magistrates.

But the government knows full well that much more is needed than a larger Bench.

The Law Courts building in Valletta needs a complete overhaul, both in terms of equipment and staff. We have heard so many times about technical issues arising from old and faulty recording or video conferencing equipment, all of which lead to delays in court cases.

An inadequate court building that is understaffed, both in terms of judiciary and their staff, has done nothing to improve this situation.

Statistics which emerged from Parliament a couple of weeks back show that 88 cases – including eight murders – are awaiting trial by jury. The earliest of these cases dates back to 2008 – which is now 13 years ago.

A recent report by the Council of Europe based on 2018 data has also noted that Malta’s court cases take too long to conclude and that it is way above the EU average.

This was even acknowledged by the Justice Minister, Edward Zammit Lewis, who told Parliament recently that the courts need to become more efficient.

Successive Justice Ministers have spoken about the need for reform and stated that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’

Yet words ring hollow unless backed up by concrete action. The government should take the bull by its horns and seriously invest in the law courts.

It is high time that that old and ghastly building in Valletta is modernised and fully equipped to cater for today’s needs. More judicial processes need to be simplified if we truly want to make our justice system more efficient.

Of course, such a revamp of the court would cost millions, but spending on a more efficient system that can deliver justice in a timelier fashion will surely not be a waste of money. It is a necessary investment to make if we truly want to strengthen the rule of law in Malta.

 


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