Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Azzopardi has flagged excess familiarity between the judiciary and criminal lawyers as a potential root of court delays, a notorious problem within the Maltese justice system.
Speaking during a recent conference organised by student law group GħSL, Azzopardi warned some magistrates accept requests by criminal lawyers to adjourn cases far too easily.
“The problem is is familiarity between magistrates and lawyers,” he said. “There’s only around six to ten lawyers who practice regularly in the criminal courts so there’s an element of familiarity.”
“The magistrates are in a tough situation; if they refuse adjournments then they’re chastised by the lawyers for being too rigid.”
Azzopardi looked back at his own personal experience upon being appointed to the bench back in 2003.
“I was president of the Chamber of Advocates and I had a lot of lawyer friends, so I found it very difficult at the beginning to not give adjournments to some of my friends, some of whom were very close.”
“It’s a problem we don’t really think about. We’re such a small jurisdiction and especially when there were only 100-150 lawyers, we were all friends with each other. Most judges were friends with the lawyers before they became judges.”
Azzopardi said Malta must double the number of judges and magistrates if it is to maximise its efficiency but warned this could be impossible to achieve due to a sheer lack of physical space in the courts and a shortage of lawyers interested in taking the next leap.
“I attended a seminar a few years ago and a German lawyer asked me how many cases I rule on every year. When I told him it’s around 200, he asked me if I’m crazy and said in Germany it’s around 35-40. Of course they have time to hear their cases and finish them immediately after listening to witnesses.”
“I don’t think this problem can be solved.”