Earlier this month, all of magistrate Monica Vella’s cases before the Gozitan courts were reassigned by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, with unnamed sources saying that the transfer was a result of her slow pace of work.
She has now been reassigned to cases before the Maltese courts, though it isn’t clear whether this means that she will be assigned more cases before Maltese courts, or whether she will keep the same workload she had in Malta prior to this decision being taken.
Vella’s cases in Gozo have been reassigned to Magistrate Brigitte Sultana, with the decision communicated by email to lawyers with pending cases before Vella last week.
While the Code of Civil Organisation and Procedure empowers the Chief Justice to assign and reassign cases to magistrates and judges as they see fit, the move isn’t exactly a common occurrence.
Malta’s courts are notoriously inefficient and it is difficult to imagine that Vella’s output is so low, that she can be singled out from Malta’s judiciary.
Other legal sources who spoke with Lovin Malta have also said that while it is true that in some cases the magistrate has found it difficult to manage all of her cases, and at times is slow in issuing decrees, her performance isn’t that much worse than some other members of the judiciary.
They suggested that it is also possible that the Chief Justice’s decision to reassign her cases was rooted in a desire to reorganise which members of the judiciary sit on different courts.
Lovin Malta decided to look through court statistics for 2020 to understand exactly how Vella’s output compares to that of her peers.
It should be noted that the analysis isn’t an exhaustive one – as there are many factors to be considered when interpreting the court and its workings – but it does give a rough indication about each member of the judiciary’s output.
Vella presides over cases in eight different courts – both criminal and civil. She is also one of nine members of the judiciary – two in the criminal courts and eight in the civil courts – to preside over cases in both Malta and Gozo.
She is one of the members of the judiciary who presides over the most number of courts, coming in second only to Magistrate Simone Grech, who presides over cases in ten different courts. Vella divides her time across eight courts, while Judge Joanne Vella Cuschieri hears cases in seven.
Most other magistrates preside over an average of two to three courts, though not all cases require the same amount of time or effort to close. There are also differences in the number of cases assigned to each member of the judiciary in the various courts.
Compared to her peers, especially those hearing cases in the same courts, Vella does tend to come up short, at least when considering the number of cases she has decided in relation to the number of pending cases and those assigned to her.
It however doesn’t appear that her performance is as problematic as was suggested by the news of her cases being reassigned.
So what courts (or tribunals) does Vella hear cases on? In Gozo, she hears cases before the Civil Court (First Hall), Family Court, the Agricultural Rent Regulation Board, Rent Regulation Board and Court of Magistrates in its civil jurisdiction.
She also presides over sittings before Malta’s Rent Regulation Board, as well as the Court of Magistrates in both its civil and criminal jurisdiction.
Two metrics were used to judge her performance. The first is her clearance rate, which has been calculated by taking the number of cases decided in a year and dividing that by the number of cases added to the judiciary member’s caseload during that year. A clearance rate of two would therefore mean that two cases were decided for every one introduced, while a rate of 0.5 would mean that one case was decided for every two introduced.
A second metric used was obtained by dividing the total number of pending cases at the end of December 2020 by the number of cases decided during the year, to give an indication as to how long it would take – at their 2020 rate – for a member of the judiciary to decide all of their pending cases, assuming they had no new cases added.
The higher the clearance rate the better the performance, while a higher value for the second metric is indicative of a worse performance.
In each case, Vella’s numbers were compared to those of the remainder of the court.
The number of cases assigned to Vella in Malta’s Court of Magistrates was incomplete since there were no cases assigned during 2020. Vella was also the only member of the judiciary deciding cases before the Agricultural Rent Regulation Board.
In the remaining courts, Vella registered a clearance rate better than the rest in two courts – the Court of Magistrates in its criminal jurisdiction, where she had a clearance rate of 0.98 compared to the rest of the court’s 0.63, and Malta’s Rent Regulation Board where she registered a clearance rate of 0.96, against the rest’s 0.59.
The Maltese Rent Regulation Board was also one of two fora where, given her present output, she would reduce her backlog quickest. She was also better than her peers in this respect in the First Hall of the Civil Court.
In addition to hearing cases assigned to them, magistrates are also required to lead inquiries and to be on call at all hours of certain days in case they are required to be present at the site of some incident that merits a magisterial inquiry.
At the end of 2020, Vella had 71 pending inquiries, less than half the 178 pending before Gabriella Vella who has the most, and significantly more than the five pending before Neville Camilleri.
Over the course of the year, she closed 34 but was only assigned two. The highest number of closed inquiries was 158, while the lowest was just six.
There are currently 10,474 active cases in civil courts and another 15,049 cases in the criminal courts.
What do you make of these statistics?