OHSA denounces 800 court case backlog
Slow court proceedings are once again being blamed by the occupational health and safety watchdog as a major stumbling block in enforcing existing legislation with the backlog of cases rising to 800.
“The current situation erodes the principle of justice being served within reasonable time, and risks cases becoming time barred”.
This damning evaluation was given by the Occupational Health and Safety Authority in the 2021 annual report. It notes that even though more court sittings were held than in previous tears, there is still a bottleneck when it comes to the appointment of new cases. The watchdog vents its frustration that even though it had been flagging this issue for years, the situation warranted a greater effort more than ever.
This criticism echoes the remarks made by the OHSA CEO Mark Gauci, who in 2020 had told Times of Malta that unless court proceedings would be speeded up, it would be next to impossible to step up enforcement and raise safety standards. Two years down the line the backlog of cases has doubled, prompting concerns that the situation is becoming worse. The slow pace of proceedings is giving rise to cases of repeated breaches at the same workplace such as construction sites. This is due to the fact that works are allowed to resume from the moment the breach is addressed even though court action would still be pending. Consequently, enforcement is not serving as a deterrent.
Occupational health and safety cases are prosecuted before the Court of Magistrates
as courts of Criminal Judicature both in Malta and Gozo. All cases are heard and decided summarily in one audience and failure for the prosecution to bring the best primary evidence results in the acquittal of the person accused. This poses several challenges as in those cases whereby a witness for some reason fails to be notified, the accused is acquitted.
During 2021, a number of court sittings were cancelled, with only one sitting being held during the first nine months of the year. Court sessions resumed in October, with cases being assigned to a different Magistrate.
As from October, the Court started allowing the presentation of sworn statements by OHS Officers who were therefore generally not required to be physically present in court. An accused party retains the right to cross examine a witness presenting the affidavit by informing the police accordingly.
Despite the drive by the courts and the relevant authorities to issue and serve summons, several cases are deferred when the summons remain undelivered. A substantial number of these are foreigners whom the police are unable to trace.
The report states that in 2021 there were nine fatalities at work, all of whom were men. Just three of the victims were Maltese, and six cases involved employees with the rest being self-employed. As in previous years most of these fatalities occurred in the construction industry or were related to this sector such as during the installation of solar panels.
Six fatalities resulted from fall from heights, two were struck by an object, whilst one died from asphyxiation whilst carrying out works in a confined space. The OHSA noted that such trend indicated that construction sector stakeholders needed to address more rigorously the risks of falls from heights, underscoring the need for comprehensive hazard identification, risk evaluation and control, whatever the nature of the work.