Advert

'Legal aid system leaving vulnerable with no justice'

Criticism of Malta's legal aid system dates back several years. Photo: Shutterstock

Criticism of Malta's legal aid system dates back several years. Photo: Shutterstock

The legal aid system is leaving the most vulnerable people of society without proper access to justice, a seminar on legal assistance heard.

The statement was made by lawyer Ann Spiteri when speaking about access to legal aid lawyers who numbered 17 by January last year. Such lawyers had to handle all the legal aid cases in Malta and Gozo, both civil and criminal.

“You would think that, considering the amount of work these lawyers would have to do, they would get decent remuneration. No,” she said.

Dr Spiteri, a member of the Legal Expert Advisory Panel, noted that legal aid lawyers who worked part-time, receive a retainer of €2,329 a year. Even worse, she added, the Advocate for Legal Aid, who works full-time, was on salary scale 10, or €19,582 a year. She asked whether paying them so little made sense because it meant they had to take on private work, making it very difficult for them to devote enough time to their legal aid cases.

If the State decides to prosecute me and does not have enough evidence against me, why should I have to pay for those proceedings?

The system was making it impossible for such lawyers to provide their legal aid clients with the same amount of attention and quality of work they gave to private clients, Dr Spiteri noted. This was not because they did not care, she
specified, but because, ultimately, they too had to pay a rent, a loan and buy food. Malta, she said, was among the lower spenders on legal aid within
Europe and the US.

Dr Spiteri noted that, while legal aid lawyers were appointed by the Justice Minister, according to the latest available information she had, their salary was paid by the Attorney General. One of the arguments of those challenging the
legal aid system was that legal aid lawyers were being paid by, and had a contract with, the opposing party of their clients, she added.

As far as she knew, nobody ever argued that a legal aid lawyer actually
worked in such a way to benefit the Attorney General. However, the question remained: are people seeing justice being done?

Can they really have faith in a system if their lawyer is being paid by the other party? The young lawyer also spoke of a proposal by the Commission for
the Holistic Reform of Justice System on the introduction of means testing in criminal cases to eliminate abuse of legal aid benefits.

In her opinion there was an alternative that would see no means testing until the end of the case and, if acquitted, the accused would not have to pay. “If the State decides to prosecute me and does not have enough evidence against me, why should I have to pay for those proceedings,” she asked, adding that
if found guilty, one would not pay if one qualified for legal aid.

The seminar was organised by Aditus and The Critical Institute and was aimed at understanding the right to legal assistance in Malta. It discussed among others access to a lawyer and pro bono service. The project is being funded through the Voluntary Organisation Project Scheme, managed by the Ministry for Civil Liberties.

Amendment: The article headline was corrected on January 17. The article text was also amended to reflect the fact that the Advocate for Legal Aid is the only lawyer working full-time within the legal aid system. The error is regretted. 

Advert
Comments not loading? We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox with javascript turned on.
Comments powered by Disqus  
Advert
Advert