Justice’s many blunders

Something strange happened in court on Tuesday. Repubblika’s case against Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa for failing to take action on Pilatus Bank was meant to resume before Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit. Magistrate Stafrace Zammit had been selected to take over the case following Magistrate Nadine Lia’s forced recusal by the Constitutional Court. Instead of finally kick-starting the case, Magistrate Stafrace Zammit informed Repubblika that she would not be hearing the case following an order from the Chief Justice.

In a communication from the Chief Justice’s office, it was explained that the case had been assigned to Magistrate Stafrace Zammit due to an administrative error. Apparently, the assignment had not taken into consideration a decree of the Constitutional Court issued on 11 November, but which was not known to the parties of the case.

Repubblika’s more than justified protestations at this sudden twist of events are mostly based on the suspicion of foul play. In their words, the Police Commissioner and the State Advocate have “dreamt up another hurdle to block the progress of justice in the Pilatus Case”.

The story behind this case as it unravels is like a bad trip into Alice’s Wonderland. At the basis of Repubblika’s actions is an attempt to right the backsliding of the rule of law in Malta. The sad irony of it all is that the main reply by the government of the day to complaints of the sort has always been to ‘let the institutions work’. Why irony? Because the deeper we delve into these issues the more blatant is the hijack and complete meltdown of the very institutions that are supposed to be working.

It was Repubblika who took the Government all the way to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in an attempt to show that a set of judicial appointments under Labour had rendered the judiciary useless and a simple puppet in the hands of the government. For all intents and purposes Repubblika ‘lost’ that case when the CJEU found nothing wrong with the system of judicial appointments. That day the CJEU stopped short of examining the actual appointments themselves – and this penalized Repubblika’s argument to no end.

The case of Magistrate Lia’s forced recusal brought back the unpleasant taste of defeat in that EU judgment. The government’s victory on a technicality is not final though. Here we have our own Constitutional Court forcing a Magistrate to recuse herself from a case. Review by our own courts still seems to have some standing. The change of heart on the appointment of Magistrate Lia’s replacement does not bode well particularly since the justification given is of an administrative error.

Now, to err is definitely human, but to err on the appointment of a Magistrate to replace another who was forced to recuse herself, among other reasons due to close ties with the lawyer to the government and its interests in the case itself, now that kind of erring is by its very nature suspicious.

Were it only a single rare error that we are seeing in our judicial system then that would be fine. Blunders seem however to be order of the day. Particularly among lawyers of the state. On Tuesday we also read of blunders leading to setting free of a suspect drug trafficker. Same day, blunders lead to the acquittal in the Libyan mercenaries case

In another November case, the court ordered the release of a man arrested after groping a woman in Hamrun declaring the arrest invalid. Errors on charge sheets, prosecution for wrong crime, and in an unrelated Pilatus Case concerning money laundering last week Magistrate Frendo Dimech criticised the prosecutors for wasting time and undermining the judicial process.

It’s an ugly pattern that is beginning to take shape. ‘Let the institutions work’ has been confirmed to be an empty postponement of justice and truth. A blunder prone justice does not bode well for the country.


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20 days ago

A very precise synopsis of why the public’s confidence in the ability or willingness of the police and attorney general’s office to uphold the rule of law is at rock bottom.

When will the European Public Prosecutors Office step in and take control?

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