Important legislative reforms

lso known as 'King Tom', Sir Thomas Maitland is the only Mediterranean statesman in English history. He was the embodiment of England's power in the Mediterranean, and as his biographer1 upheld in the book "Sir Thomas Maitland"2, he was "… with one foot in Malta… and the other in Corfu, King Tom stood out as the visible embodiment of a Pax Brittanica. He bestrode the Mediterranean like a Colossus. 

People living under his domain viewed him as a quarrelsome and ruthless governor, but in spite of this, with the passage of time and subsiding of feelings, a more objective analysis shows that Maitland was a man who, with consummate ability, laid the foundations of Malta's institutions, suppressed abuses and enacted reforms which only a capable, energetic person, who had dynamic energy and absolute fearlessness could effect. The Maitland Instructions;

Lord Bathurst3, commented that "… since the Island of Malta and its Dependencies came under the protection and Dominion of His Majesty in the year 1800, no permanent or definite system has been laid down for their Government… ". This comment was in response to a report issued by the Royal Commission of 1812, to which Maitland had forwarded his views on such report to the same Lord Bathurst, holding certain divergence in opinion with the Commission.

The main sectors of reform were the civil and military chief authority, which sectors were to be vested in the person of the Governor himself with the discretionary option to form an advisory Council; the declaration of allegiance and protection to and by the Crown, and particularly for the renunciation of ancient pretensions of the Crown of the Two Sicilies, and any other foreign country4; the right by the King to appoint the Bishopric, subject to final approbation by the Pope5; the removal of fees payable to judges by parties, thus rendering them less prone to abuse, and an upheaval of the system, where three judges were to be appointed for the Civil Court, tow for the Criminal Court, and one for the new Commercial Court, and a superior judge to sit as president of the High Court of Appeal. The judges of the Civil and Commercial Courts were to be Maltese, the rest either English or Maltese.

The judgments of the High Court of Appeal6 were to be final except where the Presidenti certified that there were sufficient grounds for giving further consideration to a petition from the appellant, in which case the appeal might then be bought before the Supreme Council of Justice7. No appeal rested in Criminal cases, however the Governor, except with regard to High treason, had the power to diminish the punishment and even excuse him altogether. Administrative procedure introduced included the trial in open court, the non-allowance of private access to judges, the possibility of advocacy representation, power by advocates to examine witnesses, pleadings and judgments were to be delivered in Italian, the notice of charges to accused, and the abolition of torture.

Effectively Court reforms blended executive with judicial authority, in order to ascertain that any limit to a judicial function would also appear to limit executive power, and a portion of such authority was communicated to all inferior branches of the system, and thus setting the hierarchy which effectively dwindled the then prevalent "pettyfogging judicial tyranny". The Universita` was to be substituted by a Board of three members appointed by the Governor; all public monies were to be paid to the Treasury which required a warrant signed by the governor to expend them; the question of the housing of the poor was also submitted for consideration, as well as the establishment of Public Schools to promote the reading and writing of English. Such instructions put forward by Maitland and approved by Lord Bathurst were intended as a means of "…

gradual advancement in the condition and information of the People, and of identifying their Affection and Interests with the British Connection… ". The above quotation holds its own defence in view of Maitland as a beneficial even though autocratic ruler. Malta : A Colony in the grip of Plague Maitland reached Malta on the 4th of October of the year 1813, and assumed Government of a colony of sick inhabitants the next day. It was clear that with the then current situation it would be impossible to effectively govern the Island. Sir Thomas himself, in a Minute he issued held that; "It will be impossible for me to stir one step or to alter anything till we get out of our present state.

I do not like the atmosphere in which we live as we breath very much through a medium of arsenic and brimestone but, I am told, when I get accustomed, it will be quite delicious…. We are all shut up in our separate cells, the whole town resembling a great dungeon, with the additional discomfort of Plague and Pestilence and not without a trifling sprinkling of famine if an unheard of price for the necessaries of life is to be considered as bordering on this" Maitland found himself at logger heads with the doctors on the islands, as these held that the plague depended on the wind currents on the Islands. Maitland refused this theory and was convinced that if the Police force acted swiftly enough to isolate quarantine and supervise the effected areas, the cases of plague would decrease.

He commenced in his usual dictatorship system the elimination of the disease; primarily he first removed the more troublesome of the profession from the Board of Health, thus effectively becoming the director of the board and the doctors mere executive officers. Secondly he implemented strict measures to be adhered to be the Police for infested citizens, with the result that by December the plague vectors were only to be found in Citta Pinto8. Sir Thomas Maitland effective measures wiped out the plague in Malta on January 1814, and a Proclamation on the twenty fifth of Janaury of the year eighteen hundred and eighty four was issued as commemoration.

However the problems were far from over; the Government Treasury was in due process being further depleted, and as a result of the plague control, and bad prior financial management the Island's trade was in ruins and poverty was rampant. Reform of the Law Courts and Education System Maitland issued Proclamation XV of 1815, and this new Constitution of the Superior Courts of Justice made sweeping changes. The judges who held their positions quamidu se bene gesserint or until such time as they were pensioned, could only be dismissed by the Sovereign. They enjoyed fixed salaries, were forbidden to receive fees or emoluments of any description or to entertain any private applications from suitors or professional persons.

The Consolato del Mare was abolished and substituted by a new Commercial Court, consisting of one of His Majesty's Judges and four consuls nominated by the General Body of Merchants and subject to Governor approval. The Civil Court consisted of three Halls, the first of which took cognizance of all claims in excess of 100 scudi of in connection with landed property, the second tried all causes of an inferior value, whilst the third was a Court of voluntary jurisdiction. Later in 1822, the Halls were reduced to two in number in virtue of the Proclamation of the 25th of January of 1822. On judge sat in the Criminal Court without a jury in cases where the punishment provided by law does not exceed a fine of 100 scudi or imprisonment for three years.

In other trials, the judges consisted of two, and in case of a stalemate, the Governor appointed three judges of members of the Supreme Court of Justice and, these, after consultation with the first two judges, proceeded to decide upon the sentence which was thereupon promulgated by one of the Criminal Judges in open Court. During any Criminal trial, torture was prohibited, and legislation made it impossible for the Police or a Court to detain any prisoner without accusation of the knowledge of the Government for any length of time. There was no appeal from the decisions of the Criminal Court but a High Court of Appeal divided into two Halls, was instituted to hear appeals from the Commercial and Civil Courts.

The first Hall, consisting of the President, of the Civil Judge and of five Consuls of the Commercial Court, unconnected with the cause in the first instance, took cognisance in the first instance, took cognisance of all appeals from the Commercial Court whilst the Second Hall and on of the Criminal Judges by rotation, took cognisance of all appeals from the Civil Court. The Supreme Council of Justice mentioned earlier took appeals in cases of evident injustice and hardship. It would seem that this Supreme Council of Justice gives the Governor, being the head of the executive and the only legislative authority in Malta, the right to interfere in the sentences of the Courts, thus contrary to the principles of the then constitution. One may argue that it is like a counterpart of the old Segnatura, which vested in the ancient sovereigns the power of taking cognisance of and reversing the decisions of the Tribunals.

Autocratic as it may seem, this Court eventually wiped out the problems of corruption and misleading legal interpretation by judges. No one would ever think of giving a bribe for a decision which is immediately liable to be reversed and no judge will twist the law to his own purpose when he merely suffers the disgrace of having his decision overset the next day. This new system was such a novelty that it could not start in its effects without giving Maitland his fair share of trouble, but in spite of recorded propensity of certain judges to oppose all innovation, and to maintain themselves in the old tyrannical system, he was in a position in a relatively short time to report that the fruits of the legislation were being picked up eagerly by the people at large.

This single piece of change in legislation alone was sufficient to raise hopes that by the end of 1814 every vestige of the old government would collapse. The only remaining bastion was the Universita`, what Maitland described as a 'dunghill of corruption'. The Universita` was a body enjoying a monopoly in the supply of grain and other necessities, leaving the Government the position of being a great merchant who feeds and maintains the entire population. Maitland unraveled multiple gross discrepancies in claims, an irregular accounting system and an overall negligent management of affairs. The result was that what was supposedly showing to be a credit balance was actually running at a loss.

The decision which eradicated this monopoly was that Maitland declared in 1822 the free trade of Corn, and contributing were the government reforms, changing the accounting system, and reformed charitable institutions, in an attempt to pave the path for a sustainable education system. Maitland tried to prevail upon Maltese mentality of the time and encourage parents to educate their children in England at the Government's expense, but, except in two cases, the result did not seem too satisfactory, and judging from the exchange of correspondence between Maitland and Bunbury9, it seemed that this was one area where the scope of success was limited. A government minute of the 14th of January 1823 illustrates how popular education occupied his attention throughout his reign.