Shame on the Courts

▪️ Shame on the Courts ▪️ Limping justice ▪️ No tax please ▪️ No home

A recent court case involving the attempted murder of his two children by a 43-year-old man, and the Court’s failure to provide appropriate protective measures to his three children and ex-partner, has highlighted again the woeful inadequacy of police and court procedures in such cases.

The Women’s Lobby has rightly slammed the court for not issuing a protection order in favour of the victims concerned despite the man’s vicious attacks on the children, one of whom miraculously survived the attack after she was stabbed in the heart and lost up to 40% of her blood.  The lobby also questioned why the mother was made to testify in person in the presence of the accused.

I fully agree with the lobby’s statement that the court sitting revealed “deeply troubling aspects” of the case and “disrespect for the victims”.  The fact that the accused is in preventive custody was no excuse, particularly since any protection order would not have reduced any of his legal rights.  What if, for some reason, he is released or escapes from prison?  Can the court guarantee that it would act in time to prevent him from approaching the victims?

In many countries, victims of domestic abuse, or indeed of any kind of violence, are entitled to certain rights.  In the UK, for example, there is a Victims’ Code that applies to all criminal justice agencies, including the police, the prosecution service, the courts and the probation service.  There are also independent domestic violence advisors who assist victims.

The laws of many countries also provide for screening and separate waiting areas to ensure that victims and their abusers do not come into contact while waiting for hearings. Additionally, the use of screens within the courtroom can prevent direct visual contact between the victim and the perpetrator.  Victims may be granted permission to give evidence or participate in hearings via video link rather than being physically present in the courtroom. This helps reduce the stress and anxiety associated with facing an abuser directly.

One other measure which is frequently used is the appointment of intermediaries for victims who may have difficulty communicating or expressing themselves, especially in cases involving trauma.  These professionals assist in facilitating communication between the victim and the Court, ensuring that their voice is effectively heard.

Courts abroad may include restrictions on an abuser’s conduct during proceedings or specific arrangements for a victim’s testimony.  Victims may be allowed to have a support person, such as a friend, family member, or advocate, present with them during Court proceedings. This support person can provide emotional support and help the victim feel more secure.

What would be especially appropriate in Malta, given abnormally lengthy court procedures, is a provision to prioritise domestic violence cases in court listings, ensuring that they are dealt with swiftly. This helps to minimise the time victims have to wait for resolution and reduces the prolonged emotional strain associated with legal proceedings.

What also struck me from a little bit of research is that in some countries, even before court proceedings, an assessment may be conducted to determine the specific special measures required for a victim’s safety and comfort. This individualised approach ensures that the measures implemented are suitable for the unique circumstances of each case, particularly with the assignment of Witness Care Officers and Victim Liaison Officers to victims. The Police in Malta do have a Victim Support Unit.

In my opinion, the challenge is evident from the fact that the Domestic Violence Unit of Aġenzija Appoġġ had the highest number of cases of all the agency’s units in 2023, with a total of 1,841 cases.

It is clear that a greater commitment is required to make sure that victims of crime are afforded greater support by the State and its institutions. The Ministries of Justice and of the Family should strengthen the current legislation and make sure that its provisions do not remain dead.  Victims have the right to be treated with respect, dignity, sensitivity, compassion and courtesy, their privacy must be respected, and they and their families should be assisted to understand and engage with the criminal justice process.

Limping justice

Two Indian nationals  ̶  Kandala Siva and Dasari Saiteja  ̶  recently spent a month and a half in jail after being charged with submitting forged lease agreements, before being acquitted by a court after it ruled that they were unaware that the documents were fake.  Unfortunate, you might say.  In reality, the evidence that the agreements were false was available to the Police since day one but the investigating officer missed it all.  The mens rea, the intent to commit a crime, was missing, said the Court.  So kind.  In fact, what was missing was the officer’s diligence, since it appeared that other failings were that he worked from photocopies and did not verify the agreements.

This is another tell-tale example of worrying signs of failures in the justice chain. The Judiciary has taken to complain that it lacks the necessary tools and resources to work, even warning that the justice system is on the brink of collapse.  Another example is the misplacing or outright disappearance of Court exhibits  ̶  Yurgen Fenech’s mobile and the Marsaxlokk parish priest’s laptop   ̶   which can make or break a case.  

Botched police prosecutions do not help.  Bungling a court case may well get a guilty person off the hook   ̶   we have had several cases of these in recent months, though I seem to be the only one who finds difficulty in accepting these as sheer coincidences.  On the other hand, rushing to prosecute without having a solid case can, at best, embarrass a person and, at worst, cause them serious problems on many fronts, as two Indian nationals have just found out.

In an editorial, the Times of Malta rightly pointed out that, in terms of the Police Act, it is “an offence against discipline for a police officer to charge a person before the courts with an offence which is manifestly unfounded”.  The paper quoted Black’s law dictionary as defining the word “manifestly” as meaning “indisputably”, “self-evidently”, “clearly needing no proof”.   In other words, Manifesta probatione non indigent – obvious facts need no proof.  I love it when somebody resorts to Latin to reinforce a point.  The question though is: does the prosecuting officer know Latin?

No tax please

Just over half of all companies registered in Malta did not file their 2022 tax returns, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana told parliament recently.  In the previous year alone, 38% of all newly-registered companies had failed to submit returns.  This comes on top of previous news that more than half of businesses in Malta are not VAT compliant.

Informed sources say that there are myriad reasons why companies fail to submit their documents.  Some companies claim they do not make profits   ̶   35-40% of them in 2019, according to the Minister of Finance   ̶   while others excuse themselves by saying that they are still in the process of auditing their accounts.  Meanwhile, the Malta Business Registry imposes fines, many of which are not paid and remain on the books of the registry despite their likelihood of being paid being close to nil.  It is said that the MBR is owed millions in unpaid fines.

Every now and then the Ministry for the Economy issues statements boasting about the high number of companies being formed in Malta, claiming it is a sign of a buoyant economy.  But I have yet to see official statements informing us how many are evading income tax and VAT or not complying with the law  ̶  figures for such cases are painfully eked out after some parliamentary question and, not being good news, are promptly buried.

John Citizen is none the wiser about how he’s being taken for a ride.  Of course, he does not even have to file an annual tax return, his tax being calculated by the IRD and being deducted religiously every month.  If he has to file a return, his failure to do so is promptly noted by the IRD’s computers in June of each year and his failure is equally promptly penalised by a fine which he has to pay pronto.

Neither is he aware that, while corporate citizens are busy minimising their profits by all sorts of exemptions, accounting provisions, and other creative ways of accounting  ̶   thus enriching shareholders and managers  ̶  he has to pay every single cent lest the Government finds it doesn’t have enough funds to pay his pension. 

The ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’ approach is amply illustrated by some simple figures based on NSO data about the sources of tax revenues and the income of employees and corporate bodies.  They show how personal taxes as a percentage of employees’ compensation have increased from just under 16% in 2019 to over 23% in 2022, at the same time that corporate taxes have decreased from just over 12% to 11.4% over the same period.

I am greatly amused during Budget time each year, when the credulous masses raise a large hurrah when, if they are lucky, a thousand or so euros are added to their income   ̶   reduced a few months later by an average 23% tax   ̶   while the owners and shareholders of corporates rub their hands in glee and spend the months between July and December planning how to enjoy their new riches in the following year.   

No home 

YMCA, an NGO that assists homeless people, claims it is seeing a record number of people sleeping on the streets.  The numbers are not as high as what they were in 2019 and 2020, when referred cases of homelessness to YMCA shot to 886 and 617 – an increase possibly brought about by Covid and the opening of another shelter – but referrals are again on the increase. 

In the three years between 2020 and 2022, YMCA cared for a total of 107 clients who were roofless.  Over the past nine months, 58 people who are roofless – meaning they are without a shelter altogether – have dropped in at a centre that opened in Ħamrun last June. The centre is not a shelter but a place – the first of its kind – where roofless people can leave their possessions in a locker, wash their clothes, have a snack and open up to social workers.

In 2023, YMCA received 512 referrals compared to 367 in 2022. Of these, only 228 people could be accommodated at its three shelters, which are partly funded by the government.  But it is not clear exactly how many people sleep outside, as there are no published statistics, apart from which some homeless people might not be aware of the available services or might not be keen on seeking support.

The Minister for Social Policy recently informed Parliament that the number of calls on the 179 helpline that were linked to homelessness increased from 158 in 2013 to 507 in 2022, peaking at 645 in 2020.

YMCA already runs the Doris Cusens Fund – Growing Independence. Through it, the NGO continues the philanthropic work of one of its volunteers: since 2021, it has supported 84 people with a total of €33,310 donations.  These donations are spent on urgent needs of clients – including babies and toddlers – such as on school supplies, education services, transportation, clothing, medicines, and fees for personal documents.

The newspaper talked to one of YMCA’s clients, a certain Ramona Vassallo, who opened up about how she dreads having to spend the night outdoors.  After years of drug abuse and periods in jail, the 52-year-old Ramona was unable to find a shelter that would also accept her dog Bucky. So, during the day she religiously dropped by the YMCA centre in Ħamrun.  

Thank God, the story had a happy outcome, when both YMCA and Times of Malta were overwhelmed with requests to support her and Bucky.   Several offers poured in   ̶   some offering accommodation at private residences or a hotel, others were job offers, donations of clothes, food for herself and Bucky, and of veterinary services, not to mention hairdressing, dentistry, and beauty services.

Ramona Vassallo and Bucky. Photo: Karl Andrew Micallef/Times of Malta

YMCA CEO Anthony Camilleri says that the offers received would “give Ramona back the dignity that homelessness took from her, and she can, for the first time in her life, make her own decisions.”  What struck me even more positively was that the NGO made sure to sit down with Ramona so that, together, they would make concrete plans for her future.

Camilleri says that clients include people who are on a waiting list for a shelter, are aged over 60, have mental health issues, or have dealt with – or are currently dealing with – drug addictions.  But he is careful not to blame such situations on the clients themselves.  “Rooflessness and homelessness are, most often, not the result of something brought about by the person themselves. People could be fleeing domestic violence, suddenly be made redundant, fall ill, or are separated from their spouse,” adds Mr Camilleri.

Main photo: Gavin Muscat/Newsbook

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