I have no doubt whatsoever that the judiciary is independent of the influence of the Government. However, the Government does not help that perception. I refer to Thursday's ceremony at which the Minister for Justice and not to be outdone, the Chief Minister (why?), opened the still largely unfinished Court building. The need for both to do it is simply evidence of the personality of at least one of them.
The judiciary is one area of government in which, not only is its independence fundamental to democracy, but in which perception plays a massively important role. There are constant references in judgments to the importance of perceptions in the administration of law and justice, especially when courts are exercising their jurisdiction to review administrative actions by the executive arm of government or the constitutional validity of laws. That the invitation to the opening came from a minister at all, and on this occasion from two ministers, one the Chief Minister, both of who took centre stage at the ceremony, does nothing to assist perceptions of independence.
The judicial system is an arm of government. It is financed by the executive with the consent (not oversight as there is no separation of powers) , through legislation, of the legislature. This makes these public gestures and ceremonies even more insidious. Public events become, not just a reminder of where power lies, but palpable evidence of power. What should have happened is that the court service should have been and be adequately funded. It, without interference beyond the provision of funding, should take all decisions as to how best to deliver an efficient dispute resolution service, with of course, guidance, from the other arms of government, as to what any tranches of money is being provided for.
There is no doubt at all that there has been for years a great need for better court and attendant office and administrative facilities. There is no doubt that what is in the process of being delivered is a massive improvement, not only in physical reforms, like the enhanced court building, but also in the legislative reforms that the Minister for Justice is engaged in undertaking and has been announcing for some time.
All these improvements are down to the tireless efforts of the Hon. Daniel Feetham, Minister for Justice. He is to be congratulated for his singleminded pursuit of achievement within his ministry and for his industry in ensuring these huge improvements are delivered. Many a minister could take a leaf out of his book. In the end the benefits of the individual achievements of ministers are gained by the GSD as a whole, thereby enhancing its electoral chances.
Unfortunately these benefits have been slightly overshadowed. On Thursday we had an overtly political act in our court house orchestrated entirely by politicians. This was unnecessary and undermined the dignity of independence. To make matters worse the impression has been given that the development of the court building has been completed, with statements like, this is a momentous day for the administration of justice, being made. The reality is that only a small part of the development has been completed; about two thirds remains to be done yet. Does that mean we will have more ceremonies Probably! What it does indicate is that Thursday's ceremony is susceptible to be seen as having been a huge political publicity stunt in what is election year.
How a physical building can be described as being momentous in the administration of justice is not easily understandable, save if human resources are to be improved. Otherwise it is just one of the steps required to achieve this aim. It is people that administer justice, not buildings. What it demonstrated was in fact that for decades the physical accommodation provided to those administering justice, despite years of protestation, had been woefully inadequate. The reality is that the judicial system is still the poor sibling of the three arms of government. It is still hugely lacking in human resources.
The delays experienced today in the administration of justice are unacceptable and not conducive to ensuring that the human rights of individuals are not infringed. For example, frequently people are sentenced for criminal offences having already served terms of imprisonment on remand beyond their date for consideration for parole. Delays are also not conducive to developing the finance centre. Users of the finance centre expect and demand quick and efficient access to courts to resolve disputes. We are told that this will be resolved in the short term. Let us hope that these are not empty promises publicised for electoral consumption as were the past promises of electoral and parliamentary reforms.
The Minister for Justice said that the new courts assert "... where we are as a prosperous and self-sufficient community". Again an overtly political statement in election year redolent with spin. The reality is not that. We are a community that for years has been prosperous and self-sufficient, yet it has only now, because of the efforts and vision of Daniel Feetham, started to provide the judiciary with the physical means to improve the delivery of justice. It is a matter of some shame that is, belatedly, being redeemed now and for which praise is due but only on the basis of the maxim "better late than never".
All in all, praise for belated and much needed improvements but criticism because it comes at the expense, by fault of politicians and not judges, of diminishing the perception of judicial independence on the altar of political opportunism and electoral advantage. Visual imagery plays a massive part in forming opinion. I fear the image of politicians treading into the realms of the judiciary, which should be and seen to be separately administered, to retain perceptions of independence, is not a positive step for Gibraltar.