Justice Reform Update

From the onset of the new legislature the Government of Malta has given great importance to reforming the Justice system in Malta.

The general public and our business community expect an efficient Justice system that does not hinder economic growth, but complements and facilitates it.

Justice Reform Commission

The Government was elected in March, 2013.  By the end of that same year, a Justice Reform Commission presented a report containing 450 proposals for a wholesome reform of the Justice system.

In implementing, in a consistent and expedient manner, the proposals from the final report of the Justice Reform Commission, the Government of Malta has also used its duty to implement the outstanding measures from the Stockholm Program wisely and has through the implementation of such measures further enhanced the quality, efficiency and independence of its national Justice system.

At the same time the Government kept all channels of communication open with the key stakeholders. Priority was given to proposals aimed at expediting legal procedures in the civil and criminal sphere.

New systems and new rights which have been introduced have already made a significant difference from the quantitative aspect (in terms of the efficiency of Court procedures) and from the qualitative side (in terms of new rights established through and under Maltese law):

1.    The right of disclosure upon arrest  which gives people under arrest and those facing criminal proceedings the right to request access to the information held about them, normally by the police. This would enable the suspects to contest their arrest and better prepare their defence.

2.    Prompt implementation of the relevant Directives relating to the Sexual Exploitation of Minors, Management and recovery of assets deriving from criminal activity, and those relating to new procedural rights (information and translation) in case of arrest.  The right of appeal from decisions of the Attorney General on the choice of court, in case of arraignment for drug-related crimes. Prior to the introduction of this right of appeal, the Attorney General could unilaterally choose whether the accused was heard in front of the Court of Magistrates as a Court of Criminal Judicature or whether that accused  was to undergo a trial by jury before the Criminal Court.  Accused persons have now been given the opportunity to appeal from such a decision of the Attorney General.  Also a set of guidelines have been drawn up in order to regulate better the discretion which the Attorney General enjoys.

3.    The implementation of the concept of plea-bargaining in all criminal courts. While this option was previously limited to the most serious offences, this mechanism has now been extended to all criminal courts, with an intent to further expedite procedures. Through this system, the accused and the prosecution can jointly agree on a proposed punishment which can then be given by the Court, should the accused decide to enter a guilty plea, early on in the proceedings.   

4.    The implementation of the concept of being awarded a judgment upon entering a guilty plea in committal proceedings without the need of undergoing the whole committal process.  Before this amendment was put into place, a person accused with a serious crime had to undergo all the committal proceedings independently of the plea which one registered during those proceedings.

5.    Substantial reforms in the drug laws which focus on assisting the genuine victims of drug addiction, regarding such individuals as patients rather than criminals. With this reform, persons charged with simple possession for personal use of an illicit substance appear in front of a specialised Board which will have the discretion to either impose fines or recommend rehabilitation programs;  and

6.    The strengthening of the Witness Protection Program in order to incentivise key witnesses to volunteer information to the Police on crimes which may have been committed and which do not fall within the purview of the Whistleblower’s Act. 

7.    At the same time a number of new technological and procedural systems have been introduced to cut down on bureaucracy and delays in the civil courts.

a.    Information sent to lawyers via SMS in case of postponements in the Civil Courts;

b.    The sending of emails to lawyers containing decrees from the Civil Courts;

c.    The sending of emails to lawyers containing transcripts of witnesses’ statements;

d.    E-filing of applications for the Small Claims Tribunal and the Appeals from such decisions.  Later this was extended also to applications filed before the Adminsitrative Review Tribunal;

e.    The sending of emails to lawyers and legal procurators with information whether summons to witnesses have been duly served or not;

f.     Online access of acts, warrants and court case information available to legal professionals in the civil sphere;

g.    Online access granted to citizens to view acts related to their case.

All these IT-improvements are served to the legal practitioners and the general public for free.

Concurrently, the Government of Malta has also increased the physical space in the Law Courts with the opening of the new Judiciary’s Building which now houses the Judges’ Offices. This was a decision undertaken not only to cater for the needs of the present Judiciary but also with the prospect of gradually and sustainably increasing the number of members of the Judiciary which currently amount to less than the average number of members of the judiciary in the EU. 

The recent appointments to the Judiciary undertaken by the Government have also led to a substantial increase of female representation in the Judiciary with the amount now shooting up to 43%.

Bill 124 of 2015

On the 13 October 2015 Parliament approved the first reading of a Bill entitled Various Laws (Justice Reform) (Civil Procedure) Bill. The Bill, which is expected to be approved  by the House of Representatives by the end of the year, will be implementing another set of proposals from the Justice Reform Commission report which focus on simplification of civil procedures.

The Bill that is expected to reduce bureaucracy and facilitate the civil process has the following aims:

-  To increase the competence of the Small Claims Tribunal to €5,000 (from €3,494.50). This will lead to a reduction of legal costs and more expedient procedures for the general public;

-  To increase the competence of the Court of Magistrates (Civil Jurisdiction) to €15,000 (from €11,646.87);

-  To facilitate notification of judicial acts without the need of seeking authorisation of the Courts in case of unsuccessful notification;

-  To give new powers to the Courts of Civil Appeals in order to;

-  Effect corrections in judicial acts without the need to send back the relevant case to the Court of first instance;

-  Fast track cases which are apparently frivolous and vexatious;

-  Fast track cases in which the parties of the case decide – on a voluntary basis – to restrict the submission of their pleas and counter-pleas to written submissions (as opposed to written and oral submissions);

-  To facilitate judicial sale by auctions;

-  To facilitate the process of interdictions and incapacitations;

-  To introduce the concept of ex-tempore judgment in the Small Claims Tribunal and in cases of warrants of prohibitory injunctions;

-  To facilitate the cancellation of existing powers of attorney. Currently, the procedure is very laborious and expensive.

The measures which have already been implemented are giving results. A turnaround is happening, as can be seen from the statistics given hereunder, in this document

Upon approval of Bill 124 of 2015 it is expected that this efficiency will continue to rise.

Better analysis of court data

The Government of Malta has started analysing court data using the efficiency parameters employed by the Commission in the Justice Scoreboard, and applying them also to past years. This process has enabled the Government to study the efficiency trends since 2011, comparing them with present performance.

Some numbers: The Small Claims Tribunal and the Administrative Review Tribunal were the courts/tribunals/boards that registered the highest efficiency rates in 2014,  (when comparing the annual efficiency levels of the civil courts). At 123%, the Small Claims Tribunal recorded the best clearance rate, registered over the past 4 years, reducing the length of proceedings from 445 days in 2013 to 284 days in 2014. This resulted in a decrease in pending cases from 1046 cases to 820 cases in 2014. Likewise, the Administrative Review Tribunal drastically improved its clearance rate from 40% in 2012 and 2013 to 149% in 2014, making this also the best rate since 2011. This was also accompanied by a reduction in the disposition time to 1408 days (from 2036 days in 2013) and a decrease in the number of pending cases. Another result worth noting is the improvement in the clearance rate of the Courts of Appeal in 2014. Whilst still not attaining the desired levels of efficiency, these second instance courts held the best clearance rate over the past 4 years. operating at a clearance rate averaging 81%.

Half yearly data for 2015 is quite encouraging. 9 out of 11 courts/tribunals/boards have registered a half-yearly clearance rate of over 100%, with only 2 boards failing so far to make the mark. Data analysis enabled us to pick this trend up early in the year, and resources have been allocated in order to facilitate an improvement in the efficiency of these boards.

In respect of length of proceedings, there was a decrease in 7 out of 11 courts/tribunals and boards over the first six months of 2014 and an overall reduction in the number of pending cases from 11004 cases in July 2014 to 10463 cases in July 2015.

Whilst these results are encouraging, we are still aware of problems related to the number of pending cases that invariably affect the length of proceedings, so we will continue to work in order to address this issue.

Aims for the year 2016

The focus for the year 2016 will be the implementation of further proposals from the Justice Reform Commission Reports.  The Government has split these various proposals into four different programmes:

Firstly, the Government shall continue to introduce new rights in the criminal law sector aimed at increasing legal guarantees and safeguards. For this purpose, during next year work shall be done to improve the right of legal assistance during arrest. Moreover, a pilot project has already been launched during the first week of October 2015. This pilot project has introduced the concept of prosecutions carried out by a lawyer rather than by the Executive Police. The Government will continue to work actively on this project.

Secondly, in the Civil Courts sector, unprecedented initiatives will be undertaken to promote the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms - specifically mediation - before filing court cases. the Government of Malta believes that mediation should remain voluntary.  This is a tool that, if used correctly, can give good solutions, expedite matters and reduce costs for citizens. Over the next year, Government shall push for amendments to improve and modernize this sector and raise awareness of the benefits of mediation on a national scale.

Thirdly, in the commercial field, the Government of Malta will give priority to the area of Insolvency.  An inter-Ministerial Committee - bringing together leading experts in the fields of finance, company formation and law - has been tasked with drawing up a new Bill aimed at facilitating and modernising Insolvency procedures. The efficiency and modernization of this field is crucial to the economy of each country and Malta is not an exception.

The fourth programme is the investment in human resources within the Law Courts, not least with the assignment of full time court attorneys assigned to each Judge. The process has already started this year and will continue next year. These lawyers have already been selected by the Judges themselves and will assist the Judges in research and in the preparation of judgments. At the same time the Government will improve the training programs for Judges and court staff with the assistance of European funds and programs.

The Department of Justice will continue the work started this year by improving services to provide Legal Aid with the aim that more people in need would able to benefit from this service. 

The Government believes that this program of steady and consistent implementation of measures aimed at reforming the Justice system is leading to the change that our country and our economy needs.