The law courts’ ‘take-away’

The logistical running of the Law Courts – as distinct from the workings of the Judiciary – has always been shaky, to say the least

I have an uncanny feeling that there is more to the ‘lost and found’ story of drugs stored in the Law Courts’ strong room. Let’s face it; things have been known to disappear from the Law Courts’ strong room for some time.

The famous machine-gun that was used in the murder of Raymond Caruana in 1986 also somehow disappeared from the strong room at the Law Courts. This was not a case of mislabelling. It was never found.

We also had the story of a heavy gold chain said to belong to murder victim Matthew Zahra that disappeared from the quartermaster stores at the police headquarters. Evidence given in Court revealed that there are no security cameras in these stores.

Recent media reports that an “unspecified” number of ecstasy pills and three kilograms of cannabis resin disappeared from the Court’s storeroom led to the Attorney General ordering an inquiry. In this case, nothing was said about security cameras in the Law Courts’ strong room. They are not installed in there either, I hazard to guess.

Both sets of ‘lost’ drugs were exhibits to be used in two separate pending criminal cases against two different accused. In the case of the cannabis resin, this could have been missing since 2004, when the cannabis was confiscated. Suddenly all was resolved. It was established that the drug had never left the strong room. It was wrongly labelled!

A report in The Times last Wednesday claimed that incorrect details had been affixed on the cannabis package leading to it being reported as ‘missing’. Readers were also comforted to learn that new procedures and added security features introduced in recent years made it difficult for anything to go missing. The cannabis blocks were exhibited as evidence way back in 2004 when these procedures had not been introduced.

The logistical running of the Law Courts – as distinct from the workings of the Judiciary – has always been shaky, to say the least.

Notifications by Court Marshalls – or rather their lack of – were always creating problems to the extent that the previous administration had to decrease drastically the number of notifications by Court Marshalls when many were subsituted by a system involving registered mail.

Yet, lawyers still encounter problems when such notifications are needed. I know too many stories to believe that all ‘mistakes’ and ‘errors’ occurring in the system are genuine.

The recent story of an accused man who was never found by Court Marshalls because he was serving a prison sentence shows that all is not well in the organisation of the system running the Law Courts.

On Thursday, two Court Marshalls were accused of stealing the files from the acts of the case against a man accused of drug trafficking. One of them was also accused of stealing money deposited as evidence in another case. Nobody was surprised.

The lack of serious management at the Law Courts is a reflection on the traditional lack of management skills in the civil service. Besides the Law Courts, the Lands Department and the Health sector seem to suffer from the same problem – although management at Mater Dei Hospital has recently made great strides forward.

This is all due to the way our Civil Service has been stuck in an old model that was inherited from the colonial adminstration when Malta became independent.

Partly to solve this problem, different administrations have resorted to creating statutory authorities that are once removed from the general Civil Service. But surely, we cannot replace every government department by an authority!

The story of the ‘missing’ cannabis resin that was lost and found could be genuine – but it still calls for a serious reform of the system.

And, by the way, where have the ecstasy pills gone?

Metsola and Orban

My reference to Roberta Metsola in this column two weeks ago provoked the lady to contact me to tell me that I was wrong.

Indeed, I was off the mark when I wondered what she had to say about the ‘rule of law’ situation in Hungary.

As it turned out, last November she had spoken to MaltaToday – no less – rubbishing criticism from Labour MEPS who alleged that their PN counterparts were raising the issue of rule of law in Malta while closing an eye on what is going on in Hungary.

She had pointed out that when the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, visited the European Parliament, she had explicitly stated that the EPP “will always defend the values (of freedom of speech) whenever and wherever they are under threat, whether it is corruption in Malta by the government, the watering down of the rule of law in Romania; institutions under pressure in Poland; or what is happening in Hungary.”

On the 16th July – eight days before my opinion piece was published – Roberta Metsola, as one of 60 members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), voted in favour of the report drawn up by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini on “the existence of a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded.”

Eight EPP members – amongst whom Metsola – voted for the Sargentini report and nine against it. Of these nine six are Fidesz members who naturally stood by their own party and government; leaving only three non-Hungarian EPP members who opposed the report.

The report outlines concerns about the independence of the judiciary, corruption, freedom of expression, the rights of Roma and Jewish minorities and refugees, and other issues. It recommends the launch of the Article 7 process against Hungary, which could ultimately lead to Hungary losing its right to vote on EU decisions. It now goes to the full EU Parliament in September. If the European Parliament approves it, the matter would move to the European Council, made up of leaders of the EU’s member countries.

After the Sargentini report was accepted by the committee, the undersecretary in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office in charge of European Affairs – Judit Varga – wrote an editorial titled ‘The desecration of the rule of law’ in which she claimed that the members of the committee “defied transparency and democracy itself.” The report, she argued, is without real legal arguments and political differences are presented as problems concerning the rule of law in Hungary.

According to Varga, in their report, the MEPs had encroached on strictly national matters and the whole investigation and report were nothing but a “political witch-hunt.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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