The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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Court attorneys

Mary Muscat Sunday, 12 March 2023, 08:47 Last update: about 13 months ago

My take on the Valenzia Inquiry recommendations to beef up the court resources related to domestic violence (DV) cases is to create a pool of court attorneys to assist the respective magistrates.

I had the occasion to speak about this during a radio broadcast earlier this week and I’m expanding further on the idea in this article. The inquiry report shot the ball in the administrator’s court but if the powers that be don’t have a clue on how to tackle this, then it’s time to state the obvious.

The court attorney system is already in place at the higher courts. Their work consists in vetting court case files and drafting judgements, for example. Given that the case backlog rounds up to 1,500 cases, then it sounds reasonable to appoint a pool of such court attorneys, not just one or two. This appointment could be a definite three year contract, which should be just enough to sort out the backlog. Should it take three years to clear the table? Well if the pool had to be made of five lawyers, for instance, each one would have 300 cases, it will easily take that much time to juggle the load, considering that such attorneys are not usually employed on a full-time basis. So there should be at least 10 such attorneys.

No one has spoken so far on how long the backlog of 1,500 plus cases would take to reduce it to a manageable amount. I wish the inquiry report touched upon this, to really highlight the crisis levels that the situation has reached. And what would ‘manageable’ be, given the life and death situations faced by some of the victims? Ten pending cases? Even one is too many.

Thinking of handling between 100 to 300 cases, as a practicing lawyer, is enough to cause an anxiety attack just visualising it. It’s not just the sheer amount of physical files to go through, it’s the quality of the cases that are bound to speed up one’s burnout. Sensitivity training, of the kind given to social workers at the undergrad level and to the MA Mediation students, might be a good idea to help such attorneys deal effectively with the cases.

The role of DV court attorney can be one of a kind: how about being a Case Manager? If such lawyers administer the case files, they could easily flag any missing links or legal gaps, in the sense that if there are any obligations and conditions imposed by the Magistrate on any one of the parties the court attorney could keep tabs on this and call the shots.  Let me illustrate this: if there’s a Protection Order, the court attorney would be given the power to check with the police for written updates and keep them accountable, or if any one of the parties needs more information about the case, they have an actual physical contact that can answer their questions. It’s a well-known fact that the parties do not have direct or indirect access to the Magistrate, whether in court or outside, unless spoken to first by the same; so it would make sense to reassure the parties that there is a contact point. This would fulfil the access to justice rights of the victim of crime that are already enshrined in Chapter 539 of the Laws of Malta.

I hope that this idea would not be trashed simply because I am an Opposition exponent. These views are based on my direct contact with the Family and Juvenile courts as a Child Advocate, as one of Legal Aid’s DV team of lawyers, plus the theoretical and practical side of academia within the fields of criminology, policing, family law and matrimonial canon law. I have also coordinated the latest cohort of MA Mediation students right down to their 50 hour practicum at the Family Court.

The role of Case Managers would alleviate pressure from the Magistrate’s immediate staff as well, who often are the primary contact points for the parties’ lawyers. And it’s not a new idea, as the law governing the Juvenile Court already provides for experts in youth matters to assist the Magistrate.

Late last year the Lands Authority issued a call for tenders for the provision of legal services spread over four years. There were about 15 lawyers and law firms that were duly awarded, and each will be getting €3,000 a month for such work. So why can’t the Court Services Agency do a similar exercise? Why doesn’t Government assign enough budget for this? If ten DV court attorneys are employed, that’s a workload of around 150 cases each, so  don’t make them work for a pittance.

Just make sure that the selection criteria truly reflect one’s specialised knowledge and sensitivity towards DV cases.

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