Nadine Lia’s chequered path to the bench

When rumours began to circulate at the beginning of 2019 that a certain Nadine Lia was being earmarked for an upcoming vacancy on the bench, several legal professionals sounded warnings that the prospective appointment of the daughter-in-law of one of the Labour Party’s and its exponents’ top lawyers, Pawlu Lia, to the bench would be something of a slippery slope.

Those chickens now appear to be coming home to roost, with leading civil society action group, Repubblika, having now taken their numerous complaints against the political partiality of Magistrate Nadine Lia to the Constitutional Court.

The group’s primary gripe against the magistrate is that she is refusing to recuse herself from a heavily politically-tinged case and that she is also refusing to entertain the group’s request to have her father-in-law testify before her in her courtroom.

The case provides a near-perfect example of how not to live up to the judicial axiom that justice must not only be done but must also be seen to have been done.

While one should give the magistrate the benefit of the doubt and wait until her actions prove otherwise – and although her politically-related decisions may be placed under a stronger magnifying glass than the judgements of others – it bears noting that her family connections, her past employment and her outspoken political favouritism do not do her any favours in any such assessment.

A chequered appointment

When she was sworn in at the end of April 2019, Lia joined five other members of the judiciary who were appointed despite a court case having been filed by Repubblika asking for a moratorium until the introduction of a new judicial appointment system that would ensure new independence for the judiciary.

At the time, Francesco Depasquale, Joanne Vella Cuschieri and Aaron Bugeja were promoted to judges, while Nadine Lia, Victor Axiak and Bridget Sultana were made magistrates.

The new system of appointment had been called for by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which had found Malta’s method of appointing members of the judiciary meant the judiciary was anything but independent.

The government had also publicly committed to change how judges and magistrates were appointed, but it refused to honour those commitments before the appointment of Lia and five others in April 2019.

Repubblika had asked the courts to delay the judicial appointments until the European Court of Justice decided on a Polish case of related subject matter that would have a bearing on the Maltese bench appointments.

But despite the looming court case, soon after Repubblika’s case had been presented in court, the Department of Information promptly announced the President would preside over the swearing-in ceremonies, and the appointments nevertheless went ahead.

The Cardona connection

Nadine Lia filled the vacancy on the bench created by the retirement of Judge Antonio Mizzi, the husband of former Labour MEP Marlene Mizzi.

Before being appointed a magistrate, Lia worked as a legal advisor for the Ministry for the Economy, Investment and Small Business, and as the chairperson of the Family Business Act committee, under Economy Minister Chris Cardona.

Besides being showered with multiple consultancies since Labour came to power in March 2013, legal observers have noted with The Shift how more experienced lawyers had applied for the magisterial position but were overlooked.

The answer to a Parliamentary Question back in October 2013 revealed that Nadine Sant (now Lia) had been taken on by Cardona’s ministry within a matter of days after the 2013 general election in the same month that Labour had been swept to power.

There she received a €33,000 salary, a €20,000 “expertise allowance”, and an additional €2,000 expense allowance.

This was at the same time that then newly-elected Labour MP Silvio Schembri was appointed as a consultant for Cardona. The ministry later published fees paid to two of its 16 advisors, saying Lia was paid €60,512 per annum.

The magistrate’s father-in-law Pawlu Lia, meanwhile, defended Cardona in the curious case of the German brothel visit, which had been inconclusively dropped by Cardona without coughing up the proof the defence said would show Cardona had not visited a brothel.

Cardona refused successive offers to have his mobile phone records for the dates in question reviewed by the media, and the records never saw the light of day, or the light bulbs of a courtroom, after the case was dropped and remain under lock and key.

Pawlu Lia is the government’s representative on the Commission for the Administration of Justice, which is responsible for taking disciplinary action against members of the judiciary. He was disgraced prime minister Joseph Muscat’s personal lawyer and has served as the Labour Party’s chief legal advisor.

Pawlu Lia was also the lawyer tasked with setting up the Egrant magisterial inquiry’s terms of reference and served as a lawyer for, among many others, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, who he defended in libel suits dealing with corruption, money laundering and their once-secret and illicit Panamanian and New Zealand financial set-ups.

Nadine Lia had also previously served under Cardona as the Regulator for Family Businesses, responsible for developing and introducing policy and legislation for family businesses.

She has in the past worked as a legal researcher, a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malta, a barrister in chambers at the Middle Temple Inn, London, a lawyer at the Attorney General’s Office, and, most recently, before joining the bench, as legal adviser to Cardona engaged in providing ‘ad hoc legal assignments as assigned by the minister’.

Back in 2010, she gained some notoriety when, as a prosecuting lawyer, she was chastised – together with former Malta Football Association lawyer Joe Mifsud who was defence – by Mr Justice Michael Mallia over the lawyers’ “appalling behaviour” during a trial.

After a heated courtroom exchange, the judge had told them both that they should be “ashamed” to have brought shame upon the profession, especially because of their unacceptable conduct during a trial by jury.

Not exactly politically-neutral

Tempers in the courtroom flare from time to time, but one thing a member of the judiciary must be seen as is politically-neutral, and Lia remarkably failed the litmus test.

In 2017, when she was still practising as a lawyer, Lia had a penchant for participation in Labour Party political activities. In May of that year, just before the election, she delivered a speech encouraging people to vote for the Labour Party and Joseph Muscat, who at the time was her father-in-law’s client.

About the high-level corruption being revealed at the time, Lia had told the audience, “so what?”.

She was also one of the hired guns brought in to defend Muscat against the Egrant allegations.

Earlier this week, Repubblika took exception to Lia’s decree in its case against the police over its inaction against Pilatus bank when she described it as a “spontaneous incident” when her father-in-law looked for and found Repubblika President Robert Aquilina outside the courts and attempted to intimidate him off the case.

Repubblika earlier this week how observed how “Magistrate Lia has only previously heard the testimony of Notary Aquilina, her father-in-law Pawlu Lia, and from third parties who were on the scene. As such, she has no legitimate means of reaching this judgment on the nature of the incident. Reasonable suspicion arises that Magistrate Lia privately consulted with her father-in-law about it.”

                           
                               
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KLAUS
KLAUS
18 days ago

There is a monument near the Castille Palace in Valletta.
The name should be ‘THE KNOT OF CORRUPTION’.

repubblika will break this knot!

Francis Said
Francis Said
18 days ago

Disgusting to say the least. Magistrate Lia, should have not been appointed in the first place.
1. Her close connections with the Labour Party;
2. There were more experienced candidates then Dr. Lia.
Unfortunately the say is part of government’s mentality. It’s who you know not what you know.
No wonder our Courts, due mainly to increase in the number of cases and the lack of serious investment and change in procedures is overwhelmed.
Being a Magistrate or Judge, together with their supporting team should be head and shoulders above the rest. Their responsibilities are very high on the ladder that makes a Country truly democratic.

Diplomat
Diplomat
18 days ago

Anyone remembering her father at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will hardly be surprised. She is indeed cut from the same rancid cloth.

Dean
Dean
17 days ago

Golden Vote holders only perks!

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