The Bar Council yesterday welcomed wide-ranging legal reforms but urged the Gibraltar Government to reconsider its decision not to fund a fourth judge for the Supreme Court.
Speaking at the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year, Keith Azopardi, QC, the chairman of the Bar Council, reflected on developments earlier this summer after Puisne Judge Adrian Jack’s fixed three-year contract came to an end.
Mr Justice Jack, who had handled some thorny cases during his time in Gibraltar, had expected a renewal of his contract but the government withdrew the funding.
The decision proved controversial and raised concerns it could leave the courts under-resourced, even prompting an unprecedented statement from Chief Justice Anthony Dudley, who said at the time he had not been consulted on the move and would ask the government to reconsider.
Yesterday, Mr Azopardi said the Bar Council – which represents barristers in Gibraltar – echoed that sentiment.
“As we stated then and reiterate now it is a matter of regret that we were not consulted by the Government on the issue of whether the state of litigation is such that the proper administration of justice no longer requires the resources of a fourth Supreme Court Judge,” he said.
“We are of the view as the Chief Justice stated that the Government should reconsider this matter and that a fourth judge should be appointed.”
The government had argued that Mr Justice Jack had been employed – as had other judges prior to him – on fixed-term contracts to deal with specific backlogs of work.
Mr Justice Jack, who was described by Mr Azopardi as “diligent, hard-working and zealous”, had done much to reduce the court’s caseload.
But Mr Azopardi said that while the workload might be more manageable, it was not the only way to assess the need for additional judges.
“Numbers of cases are only a small and not decisive indicator of the need for judicial resources nowadays,” he said.
“When I started practice, nearly 30 years ago, there was more volume of cases but the cases were less complex and involved far less paper.”
“The lower numbers of cases that hit the courts are also significantly more complex both in terms of the issues that they raise and in terms of the volume of paper that they generate. That requires resources.”
“In a jurisdiction with three or four Supreme Court Judges it is easy to see that the emergence of a couple of complex trust matters or a long criminal matter can, in effect, put a judge out of action for a long time.”
The Chief Justice also reflected on the issue of a fourth judge for the Supreme Court and the controversy surrounding Mr Justice Jack’s departure this summer.
Mr Justice Dudley said that, while he might favour a fourth judge on the court’s judicial team, it had “always been clear to me” that Mr Justice Jack’s appointment was for a fixed term of three years.
He said that while the court’s current caseload was up on 2016, it was significantly down on 2015 volumes.
While long, complex cases might add to the workload, he believed the current team of three Supreme Court judges – himself included – “should” be able to cope.
He added, however, that he would be closely monitoring the situation, and also noted a need to ensure more effective approach by lawyers to criminal hearings to avoid wasting court time.
The challenges, Mr Justice Dudley said, was to balance “sufficient resilience to cope with demands” against “not being wasteful”.
Also addressing the courtroom on this issues was Attorney General Michael Llamas, QC, who noted the Chief Justice had this summer pointed to “a very significant decrease” in cases coming before the courts.
“It seems to me that this fact of itself vindicates the current system of fixed term contracts that provides the flexibility to recruit or retain additional puisne judges when there is a need to do so,” Mr Llamas said.
The Chief Justice, Mr Llamas and Mr Azopardi were speaking to a courtroom packed with barristers and distinguished guests including the Governor, Lieutenant General Edward Davis, and his wife Lorraine; Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his wife Justine, the Leader of the Opposition Roy Clinton and representatives from across the community whose work relates to the courts, including Justice Minister Neil Costa.
Also present was Lord Mance, the recently-appointed deputy president of the UK Supreme Court, who was in Gibraltar for the occasion as a guest of the Bar Council.
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