One of the main casualties of PN leader Adrian Delia’s marital meltdown has been the court, the family court particularly.

Social media and private conversations have been skittish with laments of the supposed partiality of the court manifest in allowing the other party just 12 hours to respond to Dr Delia’s application. I have heard and read indignant assertions from various quarters that in similarly ‘urgent’ family court applications in other cases dealing with access to children the other party was granted days – not hours – to reply, and the whole process to hearing and decree often drags on considerably longer. In this case the court was convened with urgency during the Christmastime recess, spurring charges on social media that not all are equal under the law.

I think accusations of court preferentialism are hasty and based on incomplete information. A fuller consideration would take into account that Dr Delia’s application injected synergic urgency in its contents and in its requests. An express request was for the case to be heard with ‘urgency’ and for normal timespans to be shortened (in technical jargon: abbrevjazzjoni tat-termini legali) – in plain English, an expeditiousness on the time normally provided to the other party to respond and then for the court to be convened in such situations.

Family courts usually grant a couple of days to the other party to respond in matters of complete loss of access to children, but generalising is unhelpful because each case’s dynamics are different and in this case the applicant allegedly hadn’t seen the children for considerable time. 

Such opaqueness makes it hard for the public to understand the rationale of procedures and decisions

A family court lawyer I spoke to told me that this mechanism – abbrevjazzjoni tat-termini legali – is generally sparingly invoked, and that he would reserve it for something such as parental disagreement on a child requiring urgent medical treatment. 

A judge understandably has discretionary wiggle room in such instances – different judges make differing judgement calls – in this case the judgment was to treat the application with the urgency it was pitched at. Then, perhaps additionally prompted by the allegations of abuse in the other party’s response, the court was convened with urgency a few days later during the Christmastime recess. Family courts are known to convene urgently if serious allegations are made. 

Imbued with this wider knowledge – and as someone who has been researching family court dynamics in Malta and beyond – I feel that accusations of preferentialism in this case are tenuous. 

The larger issue here is the opacity of Malta’s family court. In the course of my extensive research I have not heard of another country in the Western world in which family court proceedings are closed to everyone, including the media. Other countries have guidelines on reporting on cases in family courts, or judges themselves place discretionary restrictions on reporting on a case by case basis – Malta has a blanket ban on access to media.

Such opaqueness makes it hard for the public to understand the rationale of procedures and decisions. This fosters speculation, especially on social media, where comments are expressed hastily and flippantly, often leading to an orgy of condemnation.

In the case at hand, dearth of information is leading to speculative coverage even on traditional media. Various politicians and commentators have made comments implying court investigations into the allegations made, but there is a dark hole in knowledge in this area – without knowing what was said in court during the hearing, or any communication from the court about investigations, if any, we only have speculations based on partial information and selective leaks. 

Fuller information on the structure of proceedings and process of decision-making and handling of the allegations would have allowed the debate to remain constructive and informed, as opposed to the berserk speculation that has characterised coverage in parts of the mass media and especially on social media.

This could have been done by allowing the media to report on proceedings – with strict instructions to refrain from divulging  details of the case that would impinge on parties’ privacy and children’s wellbeing (as is usual in other Western countries) – or at least by a media unit within the court that would have issued a public statement itself.

Social media especially, unlike the traditional media, is a beast that’s become hard to control, and this makes it more compelling for the court to devise a communication strategy for reaching out to the public and media. After all, all courts are being harried by much uninformed comment on court processes and decisions on social media, something that the Association of Judges and Magistrates lamented about in a meeting with the President several weeks ago. 

According to the EU’s Justice Scoreboard, Malta remains one of a handful of countries in the EU in which the courts have no media outreach system. Courts in a majority of EU countries – 16 according to the Scoreboard – even use social media to “communicate their work.”

As to the family court particularly, foreign media organisations have even told me that inaccessibility to journalists is an impingement on freedom of expression. Yet perhaps more importantly, allowing journalists to follow proceedings while imposing restrictions on reporting in defense of privacy and children will make family court decision-making more robust.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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