A few days ago, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and his Opposition counterparts were spouting off in parliament about the urgency of reforming Malta’s justice system, each posturing and bickering and claiming they’d be ones to actually turn around the nightmare that any court experience turns into for anyone unfortunate enough to get caught up in it.
Each claimed they’d be the one to finally transform it into a real service to the citizens of this benighted, ostensibly democratic isle. Justice is one of the main pillars of any democracy – yet Malta’s citizens have spent decades deprived of a large part of the functions of this basic right.
Some 20 years ago, I wrote an article for The Times of Malta about the shocking length of time it took for court cases to come to conclusion. I spoke to dozens of people during my research, ordinary people caught up in lawsuits that dragged on interminably, accused criminals desperate to know their fates, lawyers, ministers and court personnel.
Every single one of those people condemned the system as scandalous, a disservice to the citizens, an abomination. I heard Gladstone’s famous phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” a hundred times over. And yet neither the PN, in its quarter century in power, nor the PL, in its eight years in government, has done anything to materially change the way the courts operate as a service to the taxpayer.
Twenty years ago I was horrified to learn of a case that had limped on for so long that the original litigants had died, their children had passed away and it was now the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were still desperately trying to get their complaints resolved. But this wasn’t an isolated case; I saw dozens of examples of lawsuits that struggled on for decades, the people involved left feeling hopeless, desperate and completely powerless in the face of a system that robbed them of their rights, their dignity and even their humanity.
At least four full legislatures later, nothing has changed. Being forced to have recourse to the courts of law that are supposed to deliver justice remains a frightening ordeal that discourages many from even attempting it, no matter how justified their claims may be, if they have that choice.
Not everyone has that choice though. The parents of Matthew Bartolo, the 17-year old boy killed in a workplace accident six years ago, are desperate to get justice for their son. They spoke up for the first time since the tragedy yesterday, in an interview with The Shift, their agony at having lost their child compounded by the heartless cruelty of the court system they are forced to navigate.
They talk of being “broken” by the “unbearable” court delays caused by long deferrals, missing documents and every tiny step forward being eradicated by “a hundred steps” backwards. Matthew’s father said he’s given up hope. His mother hasn’t – but you can see the way the system has defeated and crushed her in the way she apologises for seeming “selfish” for asking for justice for her son.
Like the Bartolos there are dozens of others, hundreds, waiting for justice and being made to feel they have no right to ask for it. The family of cyclist Clifford Micallef, killed in a hit-and-run tragedy in 2009 were forced to wait 12 whole years for closure, which only came in March this year, when the responsible driver’s sentence was confirmed on appeal.
The delays are an abuse in themselves. Being dragged to court, taking a day off work to attend a sitting that’s then put off – but only after you’ve waited for hours in the lobby for your case to be called – because a lawyer hasn’t bothered to turn up, a witness wasn’t notified in time, documents aren’t produced, or because of any number of failures that judges and magistrates seem powerless to control.
And, of course, it’s not only costing us our humanity – treating the victims of crime in this dismissive and uncaring manner is inhumane behaviour – but it’s also costing the country money. How much more twisted can it get?
Even in civil cases, where there may not be the level of anguish Matthew Bartolo’s parents and others in similar situations are experiencing, the delays can be traumatising and life-damaging. And taxpayers are having to pay penalties for these offences committed against themselves. Just last week, the courts awarded compensation of €35,000 to a couple who sued the State Advocate after a case they were involved in took 21 years to be resolved.
Criminal cases that spiral on for years are just as damaging, with countless examples of cases where a young teenager commits a crime but isn’t sentenced until he or she is well into adulthood. One example that made the headlines was European Commissioner Helena Dalli’s 25-year old son’s case. In January, he was given a three-month prison sentence for a crime he committed, and admitted, in 2013, when he was just 18.
Zammit Lewis and his opponents talked a good talk in parliament about increasing the number of judges and magistrates who are over-burdened with cases and other duties and expanding the court building, creating more space to accommodate them. But the reality is we hear talk of court reform every time an election is in the offing, and while some infrastructural and procedural changes may have been made, nothing has been done to address the real problem, which is rooted in scheduling.
Court cases should not be subject to three-or-more-month intervals between sittings. This is a ludicrous practice that makes no sense, not for the litigants, or the lawyers, but perhaps even less so for the judges presiding over the cases. Instead of hearing all the evidence in one or several consecutive sittings, being able to focus on the case and reach a judgement based on fresh information, the judge is forced by the system to jump from one case to the next, and then pick them up months later, after having heard hundreds of other cases in the meantime.
In other countries, they do it differently. Litigants and their lawyers are given a court date. The case is allocated a certain amount of time, a few days, a week, a month. The parties concerned are expected to have their evidence ready for that date. They produce their evidence and their witnesses. Deferrals are rare, and only allowed in exceptional circumstances. Of course, there are appeals and related issues that can drag things on longer than expected, but the idea of decades-long court cases or three-month deferrals is unheard of and unthinkable.
Why can’t Malta achieve this when other countries can? MPs, lawyers and judges laugh when I say this. It’s impossible, they say. Too complicated, too difficult. It’s not impossible, though. It would take determination to overcome the reluctance to accept change that famously haunts the not-so-hallowed halls of our law courts, but it’s not impossible. Edward Zammit Lewis, or your successor, it just takes guts and perseverance.
Taking a case to court, whether it’s to sue for money you’re owed or to fight for justice for a lost loved one, shouldn’t be the soul-destroying incubus it is now. A teenager caught doing something wrong shouldn’t have to wait for a decade or more with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, putting his life on hold while he waits for it to fall. This isn’t justice. It’s a betrayal of democracy and an aberration of liberty. Reform can’t wait any longer.
You can read the interview with the Bartolo family here.