Two shortcomings of the justice system

The Maltese justice system can boast of a long and proud history but is not without problems. Of immediate concern are two shortcomings which I am about to relate.

The first concerns constitutionality of certain laws and procedures. Certain laws and legal/administrative procedures have been deemed to be unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Malta yet such laws and procedures still persist. Take for example Article 4 of the Ninth Schedule of the Value Added Tax Act (Chapter 406) which states that "An appeal against an assessment shall not be valid amount of five percent of the tax which is in dispute in terms of that appeal or one hundred euro, whichever is the higher, has been paid..." This means that a person who cannot afford such payment will in theory be denied a right of appeal. In several judgments the Constitutional Court has deemed such an imposition to be contrary to Article 39 of the Constitution and Article 6 of the European Convention as it denies one's right to a fair hearing. I think the percentage used to be higher before recent amendments but nonetheless the imposition is, in theory, still unconstitutional. Moreover, we are not talking about lawyer and court fees here but a condition for appeal.

The second concerns the efficiency of justice. We are still faced with a situation of never-ending cases-loads and law suits which take several years (at times well over a decade) until judgment is given. Thus, the entire concept of 'reasonable time' imposed by Article 6 of the European Convention is thrown out the window and seems to have no application in Malta. The wording of the law may be deceptive in that it gives one the right "to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time" but it is an established principle of natural justice that judgment should also be delivered in a reasonable time.

In my opinion both shortcomings amount to a serious breach of the fundamental human right to a fair hearing and they need to be addressed with more urgency.

I wonder, does a task force or parliamentary committee which assesses and reviews legislation which has been deemed to be unconstitutional by the Courts exist? If not, it's about time one is set up and equipped with the necessary means and resources to do a thorough job.

We also need to take concrete action and adopt a uniform and harmonious position on what constitutes 'reasonable time' and consequentially adopt a more rigid enforcement of such time.

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