The Maldives legal system is failing to serve its citizens despite many “positive developments” that have been made in an effort to depoliticise the courts; with many of judges found lacking in qualifications and independent attitude, according to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
“How often do ordinary Maldivians look to the courts for justice? Is there a sense that ‘We [Maldivians] have an independent judiciary that is capable of resolving problems?’ I think the answer is no,” surmised Roger Normand, Director of the ICJ’s Asia Pacific operations.
“Historically, [independent resolution] has not been the role of judges. Judges were an outcome or a product of the executive power. This is not a controversial statement, this is an outline of what their legal role was in the previous [government],” Normand stated.
Normand’s claims were made as the ICJ published a report on the Maldives legal system that outlining a huge number of challenges to ensure the country’s courts are in the long-term transparent in their decision making. It is hoped that the developments can remove the opportunities for abuse from government and opposition politicians alike, the ICJ stated.
The report itself is highly critical of both the role of some members of government in calling for protests and gatherings outside judges’ homes, as well as the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) that it said was “unable to carry out its functions” to impartially vet and reappoint judges on the basis of qualification and background.
“To date, JSC decision-making has been perceived as being inappropriately influenced by a polarised political environment,” the report stated. “Also troubling is that members of the judiciary have been subject to threats and intimidation as well as improper inducements by both governing and opposition party members.”
The ICJ said the report, entitled ‘Securing an Independent Judiciary in a Time of Transition’, had raised particular concerns over the “constitutional crisis” that occurred last year concerning the legitimacy of the courts and judges and the conduct of the government of President Mohamed Nasheed in addressing this.
Despite these concerns, Normand claimed that while there were “significant” problems with judiciary in the Maldives, and that the structure of a watchdog body such as the JSC needed much work needed to resolve, he was encouraged that there appeared to be a political mandate to bring changes to the legal system. However, the ICJ Asia Pacific director stressed that a non-independent judiciary could not simply change directly to an independent body.
“To have a sudden change, where suddenly judges are independent – this can’t just be signed on a piece of paper or constitution, it’s an attitude and a practice,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say we don’t have those attitudes and practices in the Maldives, but I also think the size of the developments are very positive.”
According to Normand and the ICJ, part of the challenge in trying to provide an independent judiciary is to ensure public support and acceptance of the country’s legal institutions and their verdicts, which in itself was linked to transparency within the decisions of bodies like the JSC.
“Judicial accountability is key to cultivating such public confidence and is an integral aspect of judicial independence,” the report stated. “Accountability must be manifest both at institutional level, in terms of court administration and access to justice, and at the individual level. This enables judges to decide cases without fear or favour and that they strictly apply the law to the facts before them.”
The report recommends a number of areas, such as education and training programmes for court appointees, bringing foreign experts to assist long-term, and advise on developments that it believes the Supreme Court could adopt to boost its own accountability.
In areas such as education, the ICJ said that seven-year periods outlined under the national Judges Act was used more effectively to enhance the qualifications of judges as well as ensure that a code of ethics was introduced in line with international agreements such as the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Conduct.
In addition, the ICJ claimed that steps could also be taken to ensure the Department of Judicial Administration was used to try to provide smoother administration of justice,such as requiring all levels of court to issue written reasons for its actions and establishing a judicial database so the court and public could refer to similar case law and precedents.
Normand stressed that the Maldives was relatively unique in that its courts would turn to Sharia law where Maldivian legislation didn’t apply, but that it was not alone in such experiences.
“We would recommend [collaboration with] countries that have experience of working both with common law – using previous legal cases to set precedent – and Sharia law, Pakistan is one example, Malaysia is another,” said Normand. “There are other countries where the issues the Maldives faces have been looked at before. It’s not the first time so you need to take advantage of this.”
The ICJ also recommended steps it hoped the JSC would take to act with greater transparency after coming under criticism and allegations of possible corruption.
Beyond adopting regulations and procedures to create greater accountability into the JSC’s decision making by recording detailed minutes of its meetings, a technical secretariat could also be established by a neutral party that could limit the workload to allow the organisation to work to its constitutional requirements.
The ICJ added that these developments needed to be backed by using international experts to help oversee work, and also ensure the high “moral integrity” of judges in relation to their criminal records that is also outlined under various international treaties and agreements.
The report also outlined recommendations for the country’s parliament and government to adhere to in their conduct in relation to the courts such as launching public awareness campaigns in relations to the requirements under the constitution of various legal institutions. The government was also called on to provide funding and strengthen the faculty of law and Sharia in the country, and the Majlis were called upon to pass vital laws such as the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to allow swifter and more impartial delivery of justice.
The organisation also called for reform of the JSC in relation to concerns the report and others have raised over issues of transparency.
“As a principle, the JSC must become more transparent and effective in processing the complaints by the public about judges,” added Normand. “In fact, it is important for the judges themselves that the institution of the judiciary has the confidence of the public – that you’re qualified, that you’re not a criminal – it’s important for everyone.”
Taking the example of other nations such as Indonesia that are claimed to witnessed huge problems with trying to establish an independent and efficient judicial service, Normand claimed there were positive examples of countries like the Maldives that had seen vast improvements in the impartiality of its courts.