Almost a decade after government announced it would undertake a “holistic reform” of the way court experts are appointed, the system currently used by judges and magistrates remains the same as in 2013, with little or no progress registered.
The current system, which was described by the Chamber of Advocates in 2016 as “a racket” in which “what matters most is the friendly relationship between court experts, members of the judiciary and police inspectors,” is based on members of the judiciary appointing so-called ‘experts’ to assist them in cases without any form of transparency and accountability.
To make matters worse, the government and the newly set up Court Services Agency, which last year spent a staggering €10 million in fees to court experts, are refusing to give account to the public on how these experts are being appointed, by whom and how much they are being paid by taxpayers for their services.
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by The Shift for a list of experts appointed and their payments since 2019 have been repeatedly turned down by the Courts Agency.
Arguing that it is too laborious for its employees to collate such information and give account to the public, the agency, led by Eunice Grech Fiorini, refused to cooperate.
The Shift has asked for a full investigation by the Data Protection Commissioner as the information is in the public interest. Up to 2018, the pertinent data was made available to the public through similar FOI requests, but has been blocked since then.
“Despite the lip service and PR stunts, one justice minister after the other have not delivered on this important reform and the situation at the law courts remains the same as it was for decades,” senior lawyers told The Shift.
“If anyone wants to become appointed as a court expert – even though their areas of expertise are questionable to say the least – they have first either to come to know a member of the judiciary or ask prosecuting officers to prompt their names. It’s like selling a service,” they complained.
According to a much-lauded ‘Justice Reform Report’, published in November 2013 and headed by former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello, it was recommended to “form the list of experts from which the judges may choose”. No such reform has been implemented nine years down the line.
After the Chamber’s criticism in 2016, then Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said that an exercise on this reform had been started through which two calls were made for an expression of interest for those wishing to serve as court experts in various areas, from IT to fingerprints and mobile data.
At the time, Bonnici publicly declared that the lists, which were to be compiled after due diligence was carried out, were “to be published online” for full transparency. No such lists have been made public since Bonnici made that political commitment six years ago.
Legal sources told The Shift that the current status quo on the court experts’ system has already led to suspicions of nepotism by members of the judiciary, with people having criminal records also being hired to carry out sensitive assignments for judges and magistrates without having the required expertise.
Despite direction from the chief justice, things have not changed.