All environmental crime court cases in Malta have been de facto shelved indefinitely due to the removal of the presiding magistrate, while multiple calls on Chief Justice Dr Mark Chetcuti from NGO BirdLIfe to take urgent action have fallen on deaf ears.
Magistrate Dr Elaine Mercieca Rizzo was removed two months ago from handling such cases, and no replacement has been nominated. The void means that all environmental crime cases in the country remain in limbo for the foreseeable future.
BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana sent two letters to Chetcuti, the first on 3 November, which explained the setback was causing the backlog of cases to grow, noting that environmental crimes pose a severe threat to Malta’s natural heritage and the lack of judicial oversight only exacerbates the problem.
Sultana even illustrated his point with a specific case- that of a Greater Flamingo that remains caged until the court determines the outcome of the case.
“As time passes and the legal process extends, the chances of the bird’s survival upon release diminish significantly. It is disheartening to witness the potential loss of such a magnificent creature due to avoidable delays in the court system,” Sultana wrote in a press release.
Furthermore, the letter highlighted that the situation casts a negative spotlight on Malta when it faces infringement proceedings from the European Commission for a perceived lack of enforcement in environmental matters.
“Failing to address the issue promptly not only perpetuates a negative image for Malta but also undermines the country’s commitment to upholding environmental legislation and international obligations,” the PR continues.
But this was not enough to motivate Chetcuti to take action, with his office replying that there would be no replacement before the appointment of new magistrates.
Last week, President George Vella appointed five new magistrates following a call from the Minister of Justice Jonathan Attard on 13 October. The Judicial Appointments Committee selected the five from a pool of 31 expressions of interest.
The magistrates are yet to take their oath and it is unknown when they will assume office or when a magistrate will be designated to deal with environmental crimes.
Describing this answer as “unsatisfactory”, Sultana sent a second letter on 17 November expressing concern that “most environmental crime cases have a short period to be heard” and some may be time-barred.
“It would be wrong if justice is not served because of logistical and administrative shortcomings.” the PR adds.
BirdLife asked Chetcuti to give immediate attention to the matter and take prompt action by ensuring a magistrate is appointed soon, something “crucial to ensuring the swift administration of justice and the effective deterrence of environmental offences.”
Neither Chetcuti nor his office replied to the second letter by the time of publication.
A recent investigation by The Shift found that action against one of Malta’s most challenging environmental crimes- illegal hunting- is steeped in political bias, with the government scaling back police monitoring and tailoring laws to please the hunting lobby.
The investigation found an increase in the illegal hunting of endangered species, including Ospreys, Flamingoes, Honey Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures, Eagles, and Kestrels.
The number of police on the ground to monitor legal hunting and ensure no illegal activities has decreased, with 2023 being described as “one of the worst years in terms of police presence.” by BirdLife.
Since joining the EU in 2003, Malta has been subject to six infringement cases just for breaches of EU law regarding hunting and trapping.
There are currently two active infringement cases relating to the ‘research’ derogating for trapping finches and failures in enforcement and creating a general protection system for wild birds.
Axel Hirschfeld from CABS’ said ignoring the illegal killing of protected birds and legalising the killing of endangered species such as Turtle Doves through derogations is nothing but “the Maltese government taking advantage of the EU’s slow wheels of justice”.