Under pressure at the PA? Funny, were it no so tragic

Most pressures on the PA are made by politicians complying with the wishes of constituents to get an approval that goes against published and established policies

An advert by the Planning Authority (PA) recruiting yet another lawyer has made the news. The job description says that the “applicant would need to be able to assist and support the functioning of the Planning Authority on legal matters, through legal advice on matters, having legal implications especially related to the implementation of the Development Planning Act, and representation in court proceedings.”

That the PA needs more lawyers is no surprising news, but a particular sentence in the advert has caused several reactions. The PA is looking for a lawyer who is “able to withstand pressure and abuse, and act with tact and firmness in potentially aggravated situations.”

PA lawyers rarely meet applicants for permits. Sittings in front of the Appeals Tribunal are one notable exception. Otherwise, there might be the odd meeting in cases in which some unusual legal issue crops up.

Statistically there are PA employees who potentially meet architects and applicants for permits much more than the PA lawyers. So the question arises: whose pressure and abuse must the newly recruited PA lawyer be able to withstand?

Allegations of collusion between applicants and the PA concerning the issue of particular permits are common. People who do not understand the raison d’être of a permit approval automatically accuse the PA of collusion whenever a permit is not to their liking, especially if it is proposing works next door.

The problem is that every Tom, Dick and Harry who feels that a permit should not have been issued because they feel aggravated by its approval, immediately concludes that there must have been some sort of collusion between the applicant and the PA.

This is not to say that PA employees are virgin white and that collusion with permit applicants does not exist. However, in my opinion, it exists much less than many perceive.

Changes in policies – that apply to every application – have made matters worse. The substitution of height limitation being calculated by actual metres rather than by the number of storeys has been - in my opinion – a monumental mistake. Squashing the height of residential units to the minimum allowed in order to build an extra floor has not led to aesthetically good results, for example. But, except in Urban Conservation Areas and villa areas, this policy is applied in all residential areas normally zoned for terrace housing. In many instances, this ‘one size fits all’ rule leaves much to be desired. No pressure is needed for the approval of applications that observe the rules.

But NGOs tend to forget that the issue is not that of particular permits but of certain changes in the PA’s published policy, that were, in the opinion of many, a mistake. For example, all persons who own a property with a number of floors must have consulted their architect on whether another floor can be ‘squeezed’ on top of the existing building. Some have even lowered the height of the top floor to be able to add another floor. This is not developers pushing the PA, but the PA making the wrong change in its policies. Some might argue that the change was made in the interest of the developers, but the policy applies to everyone and everywhere. Technically, the change has led to an increase of density in residential zones, thus alleviating the pressure to build outside the development zone. There are always at least two ways of looking at any issue.

I would say that most pressures on the PA are made by politicians complying with the wishes of constituents to get an approval that goes against published and established policies. It is incredible how those who enact the law insist that the law is broken in order to satisfy the demand of their potential voters.

The approval of some mega-developments are also perceived to be the result of political decisions taken at the top, rather than by the PA. It is difficult to assess how much of this is true, of course. But certain decisions certainly smack of political interference.

NGOs are right to continue to make pressure when the result of the PA’s policies lead to horror stories – but rather than repeating the mantra of accusing the PA of being in the pockets of applicants, they should seek to persuade government to change policies that have led to the deterioration of  many areas in Malta.

Meanwhile the PA’s lawyers are described by the PA itself as subject to pressure and abuse, and needing to act with tact and firmness in potentially aggravated situations!

It would have been funny, were it not so tragic.

A tale of two lawyers

In Malta cases of lawyers being sued by their former clients are rare. So it was quite a surprise that in the space of a week or so, two well-known lawyers found themselves at the end of the wrong side of justice.

The merits of the two cases are very different and I refrain from commenting on them. However, it is uncanny that in both cases the aggravated persons who sued their lawyer were women. This is perhaps just a coincidence but the odds of this happening must be quite high – at least mathematically.

Except for marriage separation cases, most procedures in the civil courts involve men and cases instituted by women are still a minority – although this is changing rapidly. Maybe disgruntled women keep insisting for their pound of flesh more than men do. Or perhaps male lawyers look at women clients differently! This is not my being misogynous but just observing the facts.

Cases in which former clients sue their lawyers are rare in Malta. Indeed, many lawyers find it uncomfortable to sue their colleagues on behalf of disgruntled clients. Perhaps the increase in lawyers has helped reduce the familiarity that traditionally existed between all members of the profession and hence made these cases more possible.

An obvious question crops up: Should not the law regulating lawyers impose upon them the obligation of insuring their practice for professional indemnity?

This is already obligatory in the case of architects and engineers, but the traditional professions – mainly doctors and lawyers – have no such legal obligation.

Everybody is subject to mistakes and an amendment in the relative laws is certainly indicated.