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Access to legal aid

The Council of Europe’s European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice is tasked with providing technical assistance in the development of member states’ judicial systems, acting as a catalyst for exchanges between different jurisdictions and promoting ideas for improving justice. Its main undertaking is to produce viable reform ideas and convey them to governments for adoption on a voluntary basis.

One aspect of its latest report focused on the level of legal aid spending in Council of Europe countries, which it regards as essential to providing access to legal redress to poorer members of the population both in civil and criminal cases.

Legal aid is defined as “the assistance provided by the state to people who do not have sufficient means to defend themselves before a court or to initiate court proceedings”.

The Council of Europe’s examination of expenditure on legal aid has identified a wide range of expenditure among states. While the Ukraine allocated the equivalent of €0.01 per inhabitant and Azerbaijan and Hungary €0.02, England and Wales spent €35 and Northern Ireland €50.

The report draws the unremarkable conclusion that, given the enormous variations identified, legal aid offered to the poorer members of society differed significantly both in volume and quality.

In Malta’s case, although the legal aid budget for 2016 amounted to €100,000, an increase of €30,000 over two years earlier, the Council of Europe report has found that less than 1c of every euro from Malta’s judicial system budget was spent on legal aid.

In 2016, the commission found that just 0.6 per cent of the annual judicial system budget was allocated to legal aid, the second lowest in Europe. Only Hungary spent less than Malta (0.4 per cent) and the United Kingdom together with Ireland spent the highest proportion.

Malta allocated €175 per case to provide legal aid. A total of 588 criminal cases in the Maltese courts involved the granting of legal aid in the year under review. Another 338 cases not of a criminal nature were also granted legal aid, making a total of just under 1,000 cases of legal aid during that year.

The report concluded that, in general, legal aid was being granted on the basis of a means test – the individual’s financial means and ability to pay. In Malta’s case, one’s ability or otherwise to benefit from legal aid is limited both by the eligibility criteria and the amount which could be spent on each case.

In conclusion, the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice has exposed Malta as having a legal aid budget that is the second lowest in Europe after that of Hungary. Moreover, the eligibility criterion for obtaining legal aid, which stipulates that only those with an annual income of just €736 or less qualify for full legal aid - appears to be miserly in the extreme.

Access to legal aid is central to ensuring fair access to justice, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It is an essential aspect of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system based on the rule of law. But in Malta it seems that the poorest and most vulnerable in society – the genuine ones, of course – are seriously at risk of having their rights ignored or even violated through lack of funding and over-stringent eligibility criteria.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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