The Prime Minister has given a second engagement to the all-important secretary of the Commission for the Administration of Justice, the highest justice organ under the Constitution, starving it of its resources even further at a time when constitutional reform gives the Commission expanded responsibilities.
The appointment of Deborah Farrugia, among others, to serve in the local tribunal of San Gwann on top of her employment with the Commission has also given rise to complaints by existent Commissioners.
Farrugia has been assigned 30 cases in this month’s roster, spread on three workdays during office hours. Her engagements at the tribunal coincide with expanded workload and responsibilities heaped on the Commission for the Administration of Justice.
The high-level Commission, which is chaired by the President and co-chaired by the Chief Justice, is now tasked with censure and impeachment of members of the judiciary, selection of new candidates to the bench, censure of lawyers as well as other tasks such as probing into court cases that drag on for longer than five years.
Farrugia’s position, as a lawyer tasked with certain functions, is constitutionally entrenched, serving as “secretary of the Commission” and “any committee of the Commission”.
The only other employee of the Commission is a clerk who works out of an office at The Palace in Valletta.
The Commission’s committees have over the years laboured inefficiently under a heavy workload, with deadlines for completion of proceedings established in the Constitution regularly slipping, partly due to limited material and human resources.
Lawyers and senior figures in the judiciary have been complaining about the Commission’s inadequate allocation of human resources. This was also raised by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission in its latest report on constitutional reform last month, when it pointed out that it is “important” that the subcommittee that vets candidates for the judiciary is given sufficient human resources.
Farrugia did not reply to emailed questions, and declined to comment in a follow-up phone call, asking how she could justify her engagement as Commissioner for Justice given the workload and lack of resources at the Commission, and whether serving as a Commissioner during office hours affects her work for the Commission.
Existing Commissioners complain
Existing Commissioners have also complained that those newly appointed, like Farrugia, were being given more caseload. One of them, Lynn Zahra, has complained to the Prime Minister about the “imbalance” in assigning work, claiming that she was given no work in September when the new Commissioners got to work.
Upon engaging Farrugia and another three new appointees last spring, the Justice Ministry had boasted that the increased complement – from 17 to 21 – would create “greater efficiency in the justice sector”, and “strengthen the judicial system, while citizens are served faster”.
“In the press release they said they raised the number of Commissioners to make the work more efficacious,” Zahra told The Shift when contacted, “but the first thing they did was to axe me. My main gripe is the injustice of it.”
Zahra is the partner of the late Joe Grima, the veteran Labour broadcaster and ex-Minister who passed away in 2017.
The new Commissioners, including Farrugia, were engaged to work in the latter half of September when they were hastily asked to take the oath of service after cases had already been assigned to them.
Commissioners hear minor criminal infractions brought by the police, who appear at the tribunal in plain clothes, in various local tribunals. In the tribunal at San Gwann, where two of the new Commissioners including Farrugia serve, these two have been assigned more sittings in each of the three months since they began serving than the existent Commissioners, among them Zahra and Anna Mallia.
This month, for example, Zahra and Mallia got five sessions each while the two new Commissioners, including Farrugia, got 30 each.
Each sitting, which takes 30 minutes, is remunerated at the rate of €58.23. Ten sittings are held in a day’s work, earning the presiding Commissioner €582.30 for five hours of work on that day.
“I used to be assigned more sessions in the past,” Zahra told The Shift, “For example, I had 15 last January, none in February, and then I was supposed to have 20 in March, although the lockdown disrupted things.”
The person who prepares the roster, Elizabeth Vassallo, who works as a director of Support Services at the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, wrote to the Commissioners last month explaining that the new Commissioners were getting more sessions assigned to them to balance out the total of sessions annually among all the Commissioners.
Although Farrugia, the secretary of the Commission, used to serve as a Commissioner in the past, she was dropped in recent years until she was eventually reappointed this year.
Tribunals cause ‘double jurisdiction’
Commissioners, whose term runs for two years, are reappointed at the discretion of the Prime Minister.
Legal sources consulted by The Shift were critical of the Commissioners’ dependence on the Prime Minister for reappointment, and the lack of security of tenure, something that could undermine their judicial independence from potential political influence.
The Venice Commission expressed concern over Malta’s high number of tribunals on three occasions, including in its latest report on Malta last month, on 8 October, when it wrote that it “reminds the Maltese authorities of previous recommendations that have not yet been taken up”, among them the “recommendation in respect of specialised tribunals to provide for access to court”.
The government has consistently ignored the Venice Commission’s concerns on the “double jurisdiction” inherent in the system of tribunals in Malta.