Restoring Public Confidence in Law Enforcement

Times of Malta
May 14, 2012

Last month, the courts confirmed that a defrocked priest who had been convicted last year of sexual abuse of boys in his care could not be convicted of a related rape charge because of an error in the charge sheet.

The then Attorney General failed to correct the mistake while the case was being heard, leading to his acquittal.

This was upheld on appeal. Fresh charges cannot be filed against this paedophile ex-priest because the crime is now time-barred.

Another acquittal based on an error in the charge sheet has also recently sparked public outrage, causing President George Abela to draw stark attention to the need for prosecuting officers to be accurate in framing charge sheets.

This followed the acquittal of three policemen and a “bouncer” on the charge of beating up a French student in Paceville because the wrong date and time had appeared in the citation. He said that society was “shocked” by such errors and someone had to answer for them, a cry taken up by Justice Minister Chris Said who said that investigations should be carried out to establish whether the recent prosecution errors had been intentional.

Dr Said went on to say that as Justice Minister he would “not shirk responsibility to see that, where it is needed, we have an investigation to establish whether mistakes were intentional or the results of human error”. As he pointed out, however, prosecution does not fall under his portfolio, but was the responsibility of the embattled Minister for Home and Parliamentary Affairs, who currently faces a parliamentary vote of censure on his handling of his previous justice portfolio.

Whoever in government is ultimately responsible, what matters to the public is that confidence in the justice system and law enforcement is restored. It is understood that the police are in the process of filing fresh charges against the men involved in the assault on the French student and the Commissioner of Police has referred the matter to the external Police Board, which considers disciplinary action against officers.

The question must be asked, however, whether this is an adequate response to what has occurred.

One has only to recall the brouhaha when in the run-up to the last general election the then leader of Alternattiva Demokratika was presented with a warrant for his arrest – a warrant that had actually been issued some five months earlier but was only served three days before polling day. The case exposed a tale of gross police bureaucratic mishaps and mismanagement. The death of Nicholas Azzopardi who, before he died in hospital, alleged he was brutally beaten while still in custody, is still a matter of contention.

Under Article 4 of Malta’s Inquiries Act (Chapter 273) the minister responsible may order an inquiry into the conduct and management of any department. This latest case of police prosecution errors involving three policemen should spur Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, in line with his continuing responsibilities for prosecution of the law, to set up a wide-ranging independent inquiry into what happened in this particular case and how such errors can be avoided in future.

To rely simply on the review to be carried out by the Police Board will not of itself suffice to restore confidence in the system.

The Maltese administration of justice has been under the cosh for the last few years. The efficiency, professionalism and training of the Malta Police Force in their role as prosecuting officers also need urgent examination and improvement.








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