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Justice in a reasonable time

A former chief justice once reacted badly when this newspaper repeated the widely-accepted tenet that justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done. “Justice must be done, that’s all,” he strongly insisted. Of course, justice must be done but what is the point of a court deciding that, say, an elderly person was illegally evicted from her home only after his/her demise?

The European Human Rights Convention lays down that “everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law”.

What constitutes “a reasonable time” may be open to interpretation but it constitutes a main ingredient in the justice system. Chief Justice Emeritus Vincent De Gaetano, who now sits in the European Court of Human Rights, dealt with the matter when addressing a conference in Warsaw last year.

He insisted that the reasonable time requirement is important “because the effectiveness of any legal system is at stake with every case, civil or criminal, that is pending before a court; a lack of effectiveness brings about a lack of credibility in both the legal and the judicial systems; and such lack of credibility undermines the very notion of the rule of law”.

Dr De Gaetano acknowledged there is “an inevitable tension between the requirements of a fair hearing on the one hand and that of a hearing within a reasonable time on the other”. This, he told his audience, led to “the tricky part”.

The presiding judge or magistrate can usually ensure that fairness prevails throughout the proceedings. However, whether the case is heard and decided within the required reasonable time can be completely beyond the adjudicator’s control. The contributing factors could include the court’s workload, the judicial and legal culture in a jurisdiction, changes in the composition of the court, illness of court officials or the parties themselves, among others.

New Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi referred to the workload factor at his inaugural sitting last week. “Since there is so much work to be done, we cannot waste time,” he said, attributing the ever-growing load of cases before the Superior Court of Appeal to various reasons.

Dr Azzopardi called on the government and lawmakers to deal with any possible changes that could have a bearing on the work of the courts. He also appealed to lawyers and legal prosecutors to ensure they are not the cause of unnecessary delays

May his appeal not fall on deaf ears.

The new Chief Justice should also take advantage of the powers granted to him by the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure, which allows him “from time to time convene meetings of judges and magistrates, either separately or collectively, and shall regularly consult with the same, individually or collectively, regarding matter concerning the conduct and trial of causes, the application and conduct of court procedures and proceedings, the implementation of administrative procedures connected with the trial of causes and the conduct of proceedings…”

Justice delayed is justice denied and, just as justice must also be seen to be done, the powers that be, especially the judicial authorities, must be seen to be striving to ensure civil and judicial proceedings are brought to a final determination in the shortest time possible.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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