When George Washington wrote that “The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government” he coined a maxim that is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago. Regular surveys by Eurostat indicate the trust that ordinary people have in the administration of justice in their country.
The latest study does not augur well for our judicial system and the decision by the government to push ahead with the promotion to a judge of a magistrate who had been rebuked by the Commission for the Administration of Justice can only exacerbate the situation.
According to Eurostat, only 45 per cent of Maltese rate the independence of the justice system as “very or fairly good”. The EU average score on trust is 56 per cent while in the US, according to a Gallup poll, 68 per cent of people have confidence in their judiciary.
Different countries have different definitions of what independence means in the context of the administration of justice and not all countries appoint members of the judiciary in the same way.
The UN Human Rights Office defines basic principles on which the independence of the judiciary should be built. One principle is that the judiciary shall decide matters before them impartially, on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law, without restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interference, direct or indirect, from any quarter and for any reason.
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici says that when European Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova visited Malta recently she declared “she did not perceive any external pressure on the judiciary”. Still, there was a five-percentage-point drop in the people’s perception of the trust in the judiciary system.
Not so recent incidents when judges were found guilty by our courts of having succumbed to bribery still linger in the minds of many. The inefficiencies of the judiciary process where delays in decisions on court cases seem to be never-ending could give the impression judges may have other interests rather than expedite the enforcement of justice.
Earlier this year, the European Commission noted in its country-specific recommendations for the 2018 semester that Malta’s “justice system continues to face challenges with regards to its efficiency”. It called for government action to strengthen the legal and institutional framework to fight corruption to ensure a high-quality business environment.
The government may continue to shrug off allegations of corruption within its circles. So far, only few court cases against alleged corrupt politically-exposed persons have been instituted. But there is growing fear both among local and foreign observers there may be invisible links between the government and the administration of justice.
The way members of the judiciary are appointed is crucial to safeguarding their independence. But one has to guard against letting the process of judiciary governance triumphing over the purpose. Only an effective independent judiciary system can convince people that the administrative and legislative arms of government are kept in check.
On paper, members of the judiciary have adequate safeguards to preserve their independence. But they still need to earn the trust of the society they serve and protect by conducting a soul-searching exercise on why confidence in their independence is waning.
Politicians must also realise the importance of not influencing the judiciary by subtle or not-so-subtle tactics.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial