If the justice system is to work properly

To say that justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done may be considered to be a cliché by some. But the acquittal of a motorist facing hit-and-run charges earlier this week could very well make one think again.

The justice system incorporates two essential elements: apportioning blame and meting out punishment. When that happens and society perceives it as such, it will also serve as a deterrent. However, if the justice system appears to have failed society, the message that crime pays risks being conveyed.

There are various ways in which that can happen.

One is through sentences considered to be too lenient, where punishment does not appear to fit the crime. Another is when the accused is acquitted because of a technicality resulting from some shortcoming. What happened in court last Tuesday seems to be a case in point.

The acquitted motorist was charged with fleeing after crashing into three parked cars in Sliema in early September. He was cleared by Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera who found that the prosecution failed to prove that four witnesses, who were not present in court, had been formally notified.

On purely legal grounds, the magistrate may have acted correctly in acquitting the accused. This is what usually happens in summary sittings, as in this case, when the prosecution is unable to prove its case.

Yet, if justice is not only to be done but is also seen to be done, was the course of action adopted by both the court and by the prosecution ideal?

A list of the so-called collisions sitting Magistrate Scerri Herrera was presiding over featured 40 cases. Appearing on the list was the name of the accused and six witnesses, including two police officers and a person who is now deceased.

The case was the second to be heard though listed number 33. Such things do happen, especially since many cases are appointed for the same time, a bad practice by all accounts and one which needs to be corrected forthwith.

The magistrate noted in her judgment that the prosecution was unable to prove that the witnesses had been formally advised and that the only one that appeared could not say much about the incident as such.

But there is no indication in the judgment that the magistrate found the prosecution in contempt of court for having failed to do its duty and ensure that all witnesses turned up in court.

If cases are to be heard by appointment all must ensure that times are religiously respected but it is ultimately up to the court to see that this happens.

It is not known whether, before reaching a decision, the magistrate at least demanded an explanation why the police failed to issue formal notification to the witnesses, two of whom, it must be pointed out, were officers themselves.

It was reported that the two policemen actually called the witness who did testify informing him they were on their way. It is not known whether the same message was conveyed to the court and/or to the prosecuting officer.

Nor is it known what internal action, if any, was taken by the Police Commissioner against the erring officers. The least the police could have done is issue a public explanation of what went wrong and why but PR is not something they excel in, to put things mildly.

Attributing such shortcomings to ‘human error’ and then proceeding undeterred will certainly not improve the system in court. Nor will it serve justice.


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