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Life is not a football match

Chief Justice should chastise lawyers' unnecessary stalling tactics

The Chief Justice (centre) making his address. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

The Chief Justice (centre) making his address. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

In his speech at the opening of the forensic year at the Law Courts, Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi chastised lawyers who open "unnecessary" constitutional cases, going so far as to recommend their disbarment.

He further said that final court decisions have to be accepted, similarly to the way a referee has the final word in a football match even if it turns out to be mistaken.
I am surprised that the Chief Justice compares life to a football match.

All that is at stake in a football match is, at most, a trophy. Courts are not playing with a soccer ball, but with people's lives and fundamental rights.

The courts have an obligation to ensure that these rights are protected and when, as a result of what the Chief Justice himself refers to as the judiciary's lack of “supernatural powers”, mistakes are made, Article 95(2) of our Constitution gives citizens the opportunity to address such mistakes.

The individuals tasked with bringing these cases forward are lawyers, who are therefore only doing their job and cannot be threatened by disbarment for representing a citizen’s interests.

It is agreed that the Constitutional Court should not be viewed as a court of third instance, utilised when the judgment from the Court of Appeal is unfavourable.

So perhaps this is the precise issue which needs to be addressed – ensuring that cases do not reach the stage where they need to be in the Constitutional Court in the first place.

A significant proportion of constitutional cases deal with breaches of Article 39 of our Constitution, the right to a fair hearing.Anyone who has ever been the victim of a crime knows only too well the frustration of turning up in court only to learn that the opposing party did not turn up

In order to reduce incidence of constitutional cases, therefore, courts should ensure that hearings are held within reasonable time (and perhaps “reasonable” should be defined), held by impartial and independent judges, publicly pronounced, give both parties the right to present their case, and takes into consideration all available evidence.

If cases do not adhere to these basic principles, one cannot reasonably expect a victim of mistrial to stand by not challenging the court’s decision.

Without the possibility of such redress, Emanuel Camilleri, for example, would still be in jail wrongfully accused of sexually abusing his daughter.

What the Chief Justice should chastise, perhaps, is the unnecessary stalling tactics used by lawyers in the “interests” of their clients, who are perhaps looking to gain time and advantage in a case.

Anyone who has ever been the victim of a crime knows only too well the frustration of turning up in court only to learn that the opposing party did not turn up. Or holding a sitting only to decide that because of some point or other (which could have been resolved without wasting the court’s time) the sitting has to be postponed.

Or relying on the lawyers’ personal agendas and schedules to decide on a date when to hold the next sitting which, once again as a delaying tactic, could be months away.

The excuses presented are at times predictable and at other times creative. Yet, rarely is action taken by the courts to challenge these stalling tactics, delaying and denying justice and therefore, in my opinion, making the courts willing accomplices in this denial of justice.

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