A new procurement system for court experts is being considered by the government to curtail the spiralling cost of complex magisterial investigations.

Government sources said the system was raised during internal talks on an ongoing cost-cutting exercise across the entire public sector. 

One high-ranking government source said the aim is to save up to €1 million from the courts next year. 

The government is trying to cut €200 million from its annual budget to finance its policy of subsidising energy bills. 

'Astronomical' cost of some court investigations

It is understood that the way court experts are appointed, and the “astronomical” cost of some court investigations were flagged during a review of public sector spending recently carried out by the Finance Ministry. 

A 15-month-long inquiry into claims the wife of former prime minister Joseph Muscat held an offshore company called Egrant cost at least €1.3 million in 2018.

At the time it was the most expensive inquiry in the history of Malta’s courts.

Two years later, a voluminous magisterial inquiry report into the now-defunct Pilatus Bank cost the taxpayer some €7.5 million. 

Justice Ministry sources said that aside from the “obvious” cost-cutting incentive, the objective of the new system was to introduce standards for the procurement of experts.

'Costs too high, need to be addressed'

“It is clear that some costs have been too high and these need to be addressed through a formalised system,” a senior government source said. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a sitting member of the judiciary said that while the price tag of these investigations may seem high, the Valletta courts are going through a “coming-of-age” moment. 

“There are inquiries being conducted now into complex matters – mostly financial crimes such as money laundering or complex fraud – the likes of which we have not dealt with before. These require a level of expertise that is not always available locally,” the magistrate said. 

They went on to add that in some cases they were being presented with hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence which need to be expertly reviewed and catalogued. This was over and above the cost of engaging forensic experts and IT specialists.

Specialists are appointed  

Specialists in specific areas are appointed to act as court officials and experts in both criminal and civil cases at the sole discretion of the presiding judge or magistrate.

It is the court-appointed experts themselves who then determine payment, issue an invoice, and are paid out of public funds.

Various suggestions were made over the years, most recently by a commission headed by former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello, for a radical change to the system.

In 2016, the Chamber of Advocates had even gone as far as to describe the situation as “a racket”.

Legal sources have complained of members of the judiciary regularly appointing the same experts despite questions over their expertise.

As far back as the Lawrence Gonzi administration, concerns were raised about the court expert appointment system by then-MP Franco Debono in 2011, who presented a private members' motion on the matter.  

Contacted for comment, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard said his ministry is reviewing the situation and will be consulting with stakeholders on the way forward.

He added that the main priority is to ensure quality standards are set.

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