Justice Minister Jonathan Attard has made a spectacular U-turn and is refusing to make public the lists of court experts who are able to be engaged by members of the judiciary.
In the wake of harsh criticism from the Chamber of Advocates, which dubbed the ongoing system of appointing court experts as “a racket”, in 2016 then-Justice Minister Owen Bonnici had pledged a revamp.
The new system promised by the former minister included public access to the list of court experts, which is compiled by the justice ministry after it issues public calls for interest.
Six years down the line, however, and the ‘court expert reform exercise’ has still not come to fruition, and Attard, a former Labour-reporter-turned-justice-minister, is now refusing to be transparent in any way on the matter.
Following a Freedom of Information request from The Shift News for a copy “of the lists of court experts compiled by the Department of Justice” according to public calls issued since 2016, the justice minister, quoting ‘sensitivity’, shot the request down.
This is despite the fact that the justice minister back in 2016 had announced how, “It is intended that, in the near future, the names of those persons interested to serve as experts be published online.”
This, however, has never happened.
‘Having this list public could adversely affect the administration of justice’
According to a declaration made by the Department of Justice to the Data Protection Commissioner following a request for an investigation by The Shift, the government made it crystal clear that it has no intention to make the list public.
“Having this list public could adversely affect the administration of justice,” the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Johan Galea replied in justification of the government’s position, without giving any reason behind this latest change of heart.
The ministry also, perhaps inadvertently, revealed that the list, drawn up after the necessary due diligence checks on potential court experts is, in reality, of little or no use.
That is because “members of the judiciary are empowered by law to engage experts at their discretion irrespective of any list of possible experts provided to them”.
Sources close to the workings of the law courts told The Shift this means that “nothing has changed and that members of the judiciary can continue to do as they please, despite the ministry’s limited efforts to reform the system”.
It is common knowledge in the corridors of the Courts of Justice that some members of the judiciary, particularly magistrates, nominate their experts based on contacts and proximity, rather than on any other objective criteria or technical knowledge.
In some instances, magistrates have appointed experts from their extended family.
The cost of court experts, whose evidence is often a determining factor in cases, has exploded in recent years.
While, on average, until 2017 taxpayers were forking out some €2 million a year in court expert fees, those fees mushroomed to €7.8 million in 2019 and reached almost €10 million in 2020.
The extraordinary rise in experts’ costs is mainly attributed to the cost of foreign expertise, including specialised companies, because of a lack of knowledge and expertise in certain important areas.