Għaqda Studenti Tal-Liġi (Malta Law Students’ Society) reported Prime Minister Robert Abela to the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life back in February for meddling with the judiciary.
The complaint has only been made public now after the prime minister mentioned it in an interview on Thursday where he was defending his refusal to open a public inquiry into the construction site death of Jean Paul Sofia.
GħSL said the complaint was filed on 22 February and that Standards Commissioner Joe Azzopardi, himself a former chief justice, is investigating.
“The reason for not publishing the complaint at the time is that GħSL’s interest is limited to the protection of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and we did not wish to generate unneeded publicity and media attention,” the organisation said in a statement in which it published the complaint in full.
The issue centres around comments made by the prime minister that, in the GħSL’S view, “prejudice the independence of the judiciary by publicly placing undue pressure on the judiciary to decide in a certain manner.
“It is a general principle of the rule of law that the executive and the judiciary should be completely independent of one another. This was the basis of our complaint.
“The possibility that such comments influence these sensitive and socially important cases, which must be decided properly and without interference, is of great concern.”
The complaint stems from separate instances where the prime minister has been seen pressuring the judiciary. One involves the case of Turkish national Pelin Kaya, who was killed by a driver in Gzira, and another in which he talked with an unidentified magistrate about sentencing policies.
On 22 January, Abela said at a political meeting that he ‘expects the courts to deal with the case in an efficient manner that sends a strong message’. He said the country could not be in a situation where the police see their efforts fall flat due to “certain decisions”.
A day later, Abela said it was unacceptable for the courts to hand out lenient sentences and suggested that harsher punishments be meted out when required.
He also said sentencing policies involving repeat offenders should be revised but did not want to comment further not to prejudice the case since it was still sub judice.
Abela said the government had given the courts and the police all the resources they had asked – including an increase in the number of magistrates and judges, more courtrooms and more equipment – but it was now up to them to make the best use of what they have been given.
Also in January, Abela called for tougher sentences by the courts to send a message to society – saying he had had a chat with a magistrate who was not identified who told him that even when the lower courts imposed tough sentences, they were inevitably reduced on appeal.
Such a conversation violated the code of ethics for judges and magistrates, which stipulates that they “shall not communicate in private with members of the executive on any matter connected with their duties or functions except through or after express consultation with the senior magistrate and/or with the chief justice.”
Abela’s comment was met with widespread criticism.
The Chamber of Advocates said it was disappointed by the prime minister’s statement and stressed it was not the role of the courts to send a message to anyone. Rather, judges and magistrates had to take independent decisions based on the law and the evidence before them.
“Anyone who made generic statements about how the courts should have decided certain cases, without detailed reference to the evidence, would only be making a superficial evaluation.
“If any messages needed to be conveyed to society, then it was up to the politicians to legislate, and the judges would then apply the laws,” the Chamber said.
As for the conversation between the prime minister and a member of the judiciary on matters related to their functions, the Chamber insisted that this was not allowed by the code of ethics of the judiciary unless authorised by the chief justice. It said this was a basic principle that needed to be always respected.
More undue pressure in Jean Paul Sofia’s case
But since then, the GħSL noted its concerns that the prime minister’s “undue pressure on the judiciary was perpetuated” in other cases after the GħSL’s first complaint to the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, namely in the Jean Paul Sofia case.
In a 13 April statement, the GħSL raised concerns over the prime minister’s insistence with the Chief Justice, asking him to call on the magistrate handling the inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia, to conclude the inquiry promptly without regard to the quality of the inquiry.
GħSL stressed at the time, when its complaint had already been on the Commissioner’s desk for two months, that “…the executive government is in no position to dictate judicial proceedings. It is the judiciary which determines judicial proceedings, having regard to the quality of justice, not the quantity.
“The prime minister’s comments attempt to prejudice the delicate and meticulous process of collection and preservation of evidence. Political convenience is no excuse to scapegoat and place undue pressure on the judiciary; the tenet of the separation of powers is greater than quick and cheap attempts to sway public attention.”
The Society noted how in his interview with MaltaToday this week, in which he attempted to explain his and his government’s reasoning for denying a public inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia, Abela admitted to sending a second such letter, “which is similarly unacceptable and runs counter to the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary”.
“GħSL reiterates our call for the executive to respect and protect the independence of the judiciary. While the executive has no authority to interfere in criminal proceedings, it has the right to open a public inquiry, which will examine the institutional shortcomings of the state in the construction sector, which is not the subject of the ongoing magisterial inquiry, which is concerned with the criminal responsibility for this particular case, and not the institutional shortcomings.”