The Chamber of Advocates shoots the messenger

The Chamber of Advocates issued an incomprehensible statement last Monday in which it took aim at an article in The Shift, as well as articles by Manuel Delia, raising the pitch of the language by ‘unreserved condemnation’ and with didactic talk of what a ‘serious journalist’ would have done.

The statement started off by conflating articles in two sites that “appeared in the past few days” – yet The Shift’s article was published two months ago.

The Shift’s article led with revelations of Konrad Mizzi’s lawyer, Aron Mifsud Bonnici, being the unnamed ‘advisor’ listed in an answer to a parliamentary question about the trips to Montenegro as part of the now infamous wind farm project.

The Shift’s articles were followed by an investigation led by Reuters that revealed that Yorgen Fenech was involved in the wind farm transactions behind the scenes and that the price paid by Enemalta surged while Fenech’s secret Dubai-based 17 Black company allegedly siphoned millions in profits.

Media interest in Mifsud Bonnici has been generated by his multiple roles that connected back to Mizzi, who was expelled from the Labour Party’s parliamentary group last week. The lawyer had reportedly been engaged as Board secretary in nine public bodies that fell under the ministries of Mizzi between 2013 and 2018. He also represented Mizzi in personal litigation.

In its statement, the Chamber of Advocates said that a lawyer would be acting for his client and cannot be conflated with any alleged wrongdoing by his client. It maintained that the role of a lawyer is to safeguard and defend his client’s [legal] rights, and in that sense, any attack on any lawyer who would be “fulfilling his duty in accordance with his oath of service” can never be justified.

This is not the first time in recent past that the Chamber has defended questions over lawyers’ role in the service of their clients with such rationale. But this time round, the Chamber’s narrow perspective is flawed on several counts.

No one would raise an eyebrow over a lawyer who acts as a legal advisor to such a politician or defends him in court, but a lawyer who starts featuring in multiple roles is bound to attract scrutiny. It is not unreasonable for the media to question the involvement of a lawyer active in multiple roles around a politician who is embroiled in allegations of corruption.

Although there has been no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of Mifsud Bonnici, media scrutiny extends beyond the narrow parameters of proven wrongdoing – as any “serious journalist” would tell you.

Such scrutiny is also valid within the context of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for Advocates published by the highest justice organ, the Commission for the Administration of Justice.

In the code, a lawyer is defined as an “officer of the court” and, in its spirit, it suggests that a lawyer has to maintain a professional distance and independence from his client.

The code does this by stipulations in given situations – such as a lawyer cannot deceive or mislead the court on behalf of his client, a lawyer should abandon a client if he becomes aware of the client’s intention to commit perjury. It also touches upon this in Rule 1:

“It is fundamental to the relationship which exists between advocate and client that an advocate should be able to give objective and frank advice to the client free from any external or adverse pressure or interests which would destroy or weaken the advocate’s professional independence or the fiduciary relationship with the client.”

In this sense, any lawyer engaged in multiple positions under the wing of a Minister surrounded by allegations of corruption, as well as being that Minister’s representative in litigation or personal lawyer, could end up in a situation that potentially dilutes that lawyer’s professional independence from that politician.

Given these circumstances, the Chamber of Advocates cannot fault people for being suspicious, or the media for its dutiful scrutiny.

As a regulatory body – whose regulatory role is set to expand in the law on lawyers in the works – the Chamber could instead be calling for clearer rules when it comes to engagements by ministerial-level politicians in different capacities.

                           
                               
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