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EXCLUSIVE: Chamber of Advocates ‘perplexed’ by appointment of Victoria Buttigieg as Attorney General

Victoria Buttigieg Attorney General
The new Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg with Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis.

The Chamber of Advocates is “perplexed” at the appointment of Victoria Buttigieg as Attorney General last week, president Louis de Gabriele has told The Shift.

He said this is a sentiment that “a significant number of its [Chamber] members, particularly those working in criminal law, have expressed with respect to the appointment of the new Attorney General”.

De Gabriele highlighted the two “diametrically opposed” issues that have vexed lawyers.

On the one hand, last year’s institutional changes that have resulted in the Attorney General’s office being dedicated solely to criminal prosecutions “inherently requires the holder of that office to have significant experience in the area”. On the other hand, the “new appointee [Buttigieg] does not have much, if any, experience in this area, and indeed has not worked in this area at all.”

He added: “The Chamber will not go into the merits of what the board entrusted with the selection of the new Attorney General has considered as the criteria for selection, but remains of the view that experience in the criminal law field is a sine qua non [absolutely essential].  This is the position of the Chamber, which reflects the position of the legal profession”.

The Chamber has a formalised, semi-regulatory role that encompasses Malta’s 1,600-strong legal community.

De Gabriele’s comments were in response to questions by The Shift after sources said the Chamber has been under pressure to take a stand since the appointment of Buttigieg has led to concern in legal circles and even mutterings of disapproval in court corridors among some members of the judiciary.

Buttigieg was one of three candidates who applied for the post following the resignation of Peter Grech, who had been facing stinging criticism for years in the wake of the high profile corruption scandals and the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Unlike the other two applicants, Buttigieg has never worked in criminal justice. Her first job as a lawyer was for the Works Department, a post she held for five years until she moved to the Attorney General’s office in 2007.

She then worked her way up to become Assistant Attorney General and chief of the Civil, Administrative and Constitutional Law Unit within the office, a role that saw her defend constitutional lawsuits in Malta and Strasbourg.

Buttigieg was eventually appointed State Advocate last December, where she carried over much of the same responsibilities until she applied, somewhat surprisingly, for the post of Attorney General.

One of the other applicants for the post, Philip Galea Farrugia, worked variedly in private practice before joining the Attorney General’s office 10 years ago, where he specialised in criminal law and prosecution, becoming Assistant Attorney General and chief of the Criminal Law and Prosecution Unit. He is widely considered among criminal lawyers to have proven himself as a capable prosecutor.

The third applicant, Chris Soler, is highly qualified with a string of degrees to his name from a variety of universities in Malta and abroad, ranging from a Masters in international criminal law to a doctorate in criminal law. He worked in private practice as a criminal lawyer before joining the legal office of the University of Malta, where he is currently a director and remains involved in litigation for the office. He also lectures and supervises theses, particularly in criminal law.

Given this range of qualities, the consensus among a number of legal sources consulted by The Shift is that the post of Attorney General should have gone to either Soler or Galea Farrugia.

The Shift asked the Chamber whether it would be adopting any additional measures beyond making a statement in response to Buttigieg’s appointment.

“The Chamber can only express its perplexity at the appointment,” de Gabriele replied. “However we also need to respect the decision of the board that in its selection certainly had more information than we do in making that selection.”

He added: “It is also a matter of professional courtesy that we should extend to the new Attorney General the opportunity to conduct her duties as required by law and her professional rules before we come to any conclusions – it would be premature to take this further than simply express our perplexity based on the information that is available to us”.

Buttigieg was selected by an ad hoc committee composed of three retired judges selected by the Justice Minister.

The provision of ad hoc selection committees to assess applicants for the posts of Attorney General and State Advocate was criticised at the time the law was being passed through parliament in June 2019.

That criticism by constitutional experts, including the former dean of the Faculty of Law Kevin Aquilina, centred on the proliferation and lack of overarching design of these ad hoc selection committees and their susceptibility to the designs of the Justice Minister, who could seek to influence the appointment through the selection of the committee members.

Further criticism in recent days focused on the lack of transparency in the selection committee’s workings. The government did not publish anything about the criteria, rationale or findings of the committee that guided the assessments of the three applicants.

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