Red light yes, green light no

Minister Mallia cannot shrug off his responsibility to close a very evident legal loophole, which among other things has resulted in the waste of considerable time and resources for local law enforcement.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Last week, a spokesman for the justice ministry urged caution in interpreting a recent court ruling that seemed to "give the green light" to Malta's burgeoning lap-dancing culture.

On the surface, the ruling in question acquitted a Maltese lap dancer of immoral acts, after Magistrate Ian Farrugia observed that the definition of 'immorality' had to also take into account the precise context in which the act had taken place.

In this case, the magistrate noted that the alleged offence had occurred in a private club which did not disguise the nature of the services it offered and was, in any case, frequented by adults who would be reasonably well prepared for what to expect therein.

But while the ruling itself made instant headlines, the issue of whether or not these clubs are, in fact, operating in a state of legality remains unresolved.

Reacting to calls for a regulatory framework for these activities - among others, by this newspaper - Justice Minister Manuel Mallia did not rule out the possibility of such legislation in future. However, he was painstakingly cautious in his approach, arguing that "this is a complex matter which may also raise issues ranging from employment to human trafficking..."

While the minister's apprehension is understandable, his reasoning on this issue is unfortunately flawed. Contrary to the thrust of his argument, it is precisely because there are concerns with human trafficking (and other serious criminal activities) that regulation of the industry is now required as a matter of urgency.

At present, gentlemen's clubs do not operate according to a specific licence, and as a result there is no clear legal distinction between a club licensed to sell alcohol and play music (along with all the other 'normal' activities one associates with nightlife) and a club in which lap dancing, pole dancing, striptease and possibly other activities take place on a regular basis.

This causes a number of headaches when it comes to applying specific sections of the criminal code. On the one hand, the existence of laws against 'immoral acts' (and 'living off the earnings' thereof) allow the police to take action if they feel such laws are flouted by one category of licensed establishments. Yet whenever they do take action, their efforts are thwarted by the absence of any clear guidelines on the applicability of the same laws by the courts.

This in itself is a cause for concern. If certain laws prove unenforceable in practice, it is incumbent on Malta's legislators to address the existing anomalies before they create unnecessary injustices. Dr Mallia cannot therefore shrug off his responsibility to close a very evident legal loophole, which among other things has resulted in the waste of considerable time and resources for local law enforcement.

Moreover, it is the very absence of regulation that creates the apparent free-for-all in which organised crime has been known to flourish in all such environments. For instance, in the absence of a clear legal framework defining such activities, it is difficult to investigate the possibility that individual employees have been lured to Malta under false pretences and may conceivably have been forced into prostitution.

Even without this consideration, it is simply unfair for all concerned - club owners, employees, patrons and even the police - that such establishments, being unregulated, remain subject to the possibility of random criminal action at any given moment.

At a glance this seems to violate a very fundamental legal principle. We all know that ignorance of the law is no excuse for illegal activity, but at the same time, the law itself has no excuse not to be clear enough for all to understand where the precise limits of illegal activity begin and end.

This applies to lap dancers themselves, in particular because of Malta's notoriously draconian money-laundering laws. These laws prevent people from making bank deposits using money that was acquired illegally, and accordingly, lap dancers who deposit their earnings may unwittingly become liable to prison sentences of up to 25 years.

All these evident anomalies may be clarified at the stroke of a pen by means of a proper legal regulatory framework, yet government seems reluctant to take the bull by the horns. Given the broad consensus that regulation is inherently preferable to no regulation at all, one must wonder whether this reluctance may be attributable to other complications of a more political nature.

For instance, it was significant that the Justice Minister would warn that the court ruling does not "give a green light" to this industry. This was an unfortunate choice of words, as it is certainly not up to the justice ministry to decide how any court ruling should or should not be interpreted. On another level, Dr Mallia's comments may even be an open invitation to further confusion: club owners, patrons and employees alike are left none the wiser as to whether they may find themselves arrested tomorrow for something that has (apparently) been declared legal today.

In view of these and other considerations, MaltaToday reiterates its call for serious regulation of the industry once and for all.