You’re either a magistrate, or a TV celebrity. You can’t be both...

Magistrate Joe Mifsud starts out his judgment with a typical ‘Thought of the Day’: an entirely random “warning against the harmful effects of social networks which, when misused, could lead to breakups and character assassination…”

I’ve interviewed quite a number of people over the years; and looking back… a fair amount of them were justice ministers/shadow ministers, on the subject of (inter alia) judicial and magisterial appointments.

Owen Bonnici, Carm Mifsud Bonnici, Beppe Fenech Adami, Tonio Borg… I’ve had the opportunity to ask all those people for a justification of the (often outrageous) choice of appointees to the judiciary. And one by one, unerringly, they always gave the same response.

They all claimed that ‘the individual invariably rises to the occasion’; or – to literally translate an Italian expression at least one of them used – that ‘the habit will make the monk’.

Even the wording was almost identical. It’s almost as if there’s a secret handbook of quick-and-easy answers that they’ve all learnt by heart: it starts with, ‘look at the appointees of the past: some were very political, but they all pulled their socks up and ended up making very good judges/magistrates;’ and it ends with ‘I have absolutely no doubt that the same will apply to Judge or Magistrate X, Y and Z…’

Honestly, it makes you wonder if ‘grotesque naivety’ is also part of the job requirements to become Justice Minister in this country…

For starters: it is demonstrably untrue that all past judicial appointees have always ‘risen to the occasion’. As I recall, at least two of them (including one Chief Justice) actually ended up in jail on corruption charges.

I imagine Eddie Fenech Adami also thought that Noel Arrigo and Patrick Vella would ‘rise to the occasion’ upon wearing the robes of a judge. No wonder he turned white as a sheet, when the Police Commissioner later informed him that both had been caught accepting bribes to reduce a drug-trafficker’s sentence on appeal…

And those are just the two most glaring examples of why the above argument is complete hogwash, at the end of the day. There is absolutely no guarantee that a poor choice of appointee will miraculously translate into an excellent judge. Quite the contrary: there is an entire case history that strongly suggests otherwise.

And now, onto one of the more recent examples: Joe Mifsud, whose only apparent qualification for the post of magistrate seems to be an entire lifetime of active service within the Labour movement: starting out as a journalist with Super One; writing five books about ‘politics and crime’ (for which he also briefly held a local record in libel suits, until it was surpassed by Daphne Caruana Galizia); and eventually rising to the rank of the Labour Party’s international secretary.

Quite an impressive CV, I’ll grant you. But how much of it actually ‘qualifies’ Joe Mifsud to administer justice in a court of law? None at all, I would say. And there cannot be much in the way of legitimate justification, either… considering that Mifsud did not even fulfil the basic requirement of serving 12 years as a practising lawyer (he only served nine).

Nonetheless, his appointment to the bench – which was as blatantly partisan-political as it could conceivably have been – does illustrate the extent of the problem rather neatly.

Consider this excerpt from a news report last January: “Some of those present inside the Gozo courtroom on Wednesday [said] they could not believe their eyes when [Magistrate Mifsud], sitting at the bench, used his tablet to play Mike Spiteri’s song before he proceeded to read out the judgment in which he quoted part of the lyrics. […] Just before he started reading the conclusions, the magistrate played the popular song Fejn tħobb il-qalb (Wherever the heart loves). When it reached the chorus, he started reading his sentence...”

In a country where lesser mortals can get fined (or even imprisoned) for ‘contempt of court’, I find it strange that the Commission for the Administration of Justice had absolutely nothing to say about a sitting magistrate making a complete mockery of justice, by turning his own courtroom (however briefly) into a disco.

Without delving too deeply into the case at hand, it is painfully clear that Joe Mifsud was, at that moment, still behaving and reasoning exactly like a media personality, rather than as a magistrate. Not only did the ‘habit not make the monk’ in this case… but the monk somehow managed to turn the entire monastery into a circus.

Small wonder, that “legal operators […] expressed concern that such behaviour risked eroding the respect both the court and the judiciary should command.”  With that one thoughtless (and tasteless) gimmick, Magistrate Joe Mifsud plunged Malta’s judicial process into instant ridicule.

But this sort of populist frivolity also underscores that the former Super One anchor-man still retains a mindset – moulded entirely by his career in television – that is motivated by ‘ratings’. It is as though he sees himself as more of a celebrity than an adjudicator… and therefore analyses what sort of verdict people ‘want’, before taking decisions which will invariably have an enormous impact on real people, and their families, out here in the real world.

This explains why so many of Mifsud rulings are peppered with little personal observations – some of which sound suspiciously like Jerry Springer’s ‘Thoughts of the Day’ – where he cavalierly steps out of his role as magistrate, and instead regales us with an entirely pointless ‘running commentary’ of his own… just like the days when he was on TV.

This is, of course, the clean opposite of what any magistrate or judge should do… and it is also the overwhelming reason why Justice is traditionally depicted as being ‘blind’: i.e., impervious to such frivolous concerns, and immune to the demands of popular opinion.

But even I was taken aback by what he’d come up with next. The latest ‘Mifsudata’ of a court judgment involves a woman who suffered “a fractured leg and bruising above the hip” at the hands of her husband: an AFM soldier who “had flown into a rage after his wife had shared a photo showing the sea view and the lower part of her legs on Instagram...”

The victim also testified “that her husband had threatened to kill her or jump from the Ta’ Cenc cliffs, taking the couple’s children with him.”
True to form, Magistrate Joe Mifsud starts out his judgment with a typical ‘Thought of the Day’: an entirely random “warning against the harmful effects of social networks which, when misused, could lead to breakups and character assassination…”

And that sets the tone for a verdict that turns the entire case on its head. Suddenly, it is the woman who is in the dock… for ‘misusing’ social networks, by posting a photo in which her lower legs could be seen. It is now the act of posting that photo online – and not the subsequent beating, which left one of those legs fractured – that is the root cause of the trouble in this case.

But wait, it gets worse. Much worse.

Having pre-emptively established that it is really the woman who is at fault here, for failing to live up to the domineering expectations of her pathologically possessive husband… Magistrate Joe Mifsud goes on to substantially alter the nature of the actual accusations.
The man was accused of causing ‘grievous bodily harm’ – and I think we can all agree that a ‘fractured leg’ is pretty darn serious, as far as domestic violence injuries go – yet strangely, Joe Mifsud only found him guilty of causing ‘slight bodily harm’.

To put that into context, ’slight harm’ refers to injuries such as a black eye or a bust lip: i.e., things that heal by themselves without any need for medical intervention. An injury that needs stitches is automatically considered grievous… let alone a fractured leg, for crying out loud.

Not in Joe Mifsud’s courtroom, however: where “the court pronounced itself ‘convinced’ that the nature of the injury had been slight, explaining that classification of an injury was ultimately in the hands of the judge deciding upon the facts and was not ‘necessarily and exclusively’ based on ‘medical opinion’.”

Again, it is disconcerting that the Commission For The Administration of Justice has nothing to say about a sitting magistrate who – not content with having already reduced the court into a laughing stock – this time, went so far as to unilaterally rewrite Maltese law while delivering a verdict.

But the same cannot be said for various women’s rights organisations, as well as lecturers within the University’s Faculty of Social Well-being, who all took to the social media to express their outrage.

Quite rightly, too: for once again, this has to be viewed within its proper social and cultural context. Malta registers among the highest rates of domestic violence – and, specifically, femicide – anywhere in the EU. It is already bad enough that the law-courts have already made a habit of treating such matters very lightly indeed: always favouring ‘reconciliation’ over punitive justice, even in the case of serial, repeat offenders; and invariably meting out the lowest penalties permissible at law. This judgment, however, sets an incredibly dangerous precedent. It allows any magistrate in future to simply override expert testimony at his or her own whim or idle fancy… without even bothering to give any explanation for the decision. (Nowhere does Mifsud’s ruling state on what ‘facts’, specifically, he based his bizarre reclassification of a medically-confirmed injury).

Most unconscionable of all, however, Magistrate Joe Mifsud’s ruling puts not only that woman’s life back into imminent danger… but also the life of her children (whom the husband also threatened to kill, remember?).

Now: let’s try and project the possible outcomes of this ruling, shall we?  Husband once again flies into a rage, over some equally trivial ‘misdemeanour’, and this time breaks his wife’s other leg… or maybe both her arms… or heck, maybe he really does just throw her off Ta’ Cenc Cliffs, like he’s already threatened to do. Followed by their children, and possibly even by himself. (Let’s face it: it’s not as though this sort of thing has never happened before…)

What would Joe Mifsud’s culpability be in any of those scenarios, I wonder? What Mike Spiteri lyrics will he quote to himself this time, to assuage his conscience over what could very easily evolve into a domestic tragedy of Garcia Lorca proportions?

I don’t know, but one thing is certain. That verdict is not a case of justice being served. And while it may yet be corrected on appeal… there is simply no way to correct the glaring (and quite frankly indefensible) mistake of having appointed the likes of Joe Mifsud to the judiciary in the first place.

The only hope is that he one day realises that his job is no longer to pass off his own private opinions as facts – as it used to be, when he was still a TV celebrity – but to administer justice. There is, after all, a rather huge difference between the two.

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