Transparency applies to the law courts, too

In his annual address on the occasion of the inauguration of the legal year, Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi had some harsh words of criticism for the press; specifically, for journalists “who every now and then send some questions to my secretariat and ask for a reply (if you please, by a certain date that they fix themselves)”.

Azzopardi continued: “I say persons because I exclude from these those true journalists, professionals, who know what they should and should not ask. To these persons who ask questions that should not be asked by ‘true’ and serious journalists, I say: please therefore understand that we aren’t the politicians or chairmen of parastatal bodies that you normally send questions to and expect an answer.”

The Chief Justice is generally right that a distinction has to be made between the judiciary and other branches of the public service. He also has a point when he observes that: “it is easy to attack members of the judiciary because you know they can’t answer you.”

It is true that the rules and regulations preclude judges and magistrates from speaking publicly on certain matters, primarily to ensure their impartiality in deciding cases. But it does not follow that the entire judicial system should be above scrutiny.

In the same speech, the Chief Justice also indirectly criticised this newspaper’s decision to make public the results of a Commission for The Administration of Justice investigation into the behaviour of a magistrate in one specific case.

Without making direct reference to MaltaToday, Azzopardi insisted that proceedings concerning members of the judiciary in the Commission must, according to law, be held in chambers and not in public.

In the same way as the judiciary could not arbitrarily decide not to follow the law, he argued, neither could the press. “Nobody has the right to decide to ignore the law because he feels it is unjust. If the law is anachronistic or outdated, it should change and not be broken.”

Azzopardi was presumably referring to a MaltaToday report last August that Magistrate Joe Mifsud had been reprimanded by the Commission for the Administration of Justice over an ethics breach.

If so, there is an irony in his overall argument. The reason this newspaper chose to publish that report was because it is clearly in the public interest to know when members of the judiciary are disciplined; but also because the Commission’s ruling called into question the impartiality of the magistrate concerned.

Magistrate Joe Mifsud was, in fact, found to have breached the code of ethics for members of the judiciary, when he expressed his opinion in a judgement he passed on a case of illegal trapping. In a complaint filed against the magistrate by BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana, the CAJ had to decide whether Mifsud breached the code of ethics when he delivered a decree ahead of a sentence in which a man accused of illegal trapping was cleared of all charges.

In the decree, Mifsud listed a number of recommendations related to technical details that seemed to have nothing to do with the case at hand, and which echoed arguments put forward by the hunting lobby. The complainant argued that the points raised in the decree had nothing to do with the facts of the case before the courts, and dealt with a political issue on which there were differing views.

In its ruling, the Commission said that it had no doubt that the magistrate’s intentions were benign. “But this does not mean that the magistrate was right to issue the decree, and for a number of reasons.”

The first was that in order for justice to appear to be done, it was important for the courts to appear impartial. “The role of the court is to administer justice by deciding on the merits of the proceedings it has before it and to interpret the applicable laws in each case. Members of the judiciary should limit themselves to this and should not enter into, or express themselves, in relation to controversies that have nothing to do with the case before the court. There is no doubt that the there is no agreement by the various interested parties regarding the three points raised in the decree.”

This is the substance of the ruling that MaltaToday chose to publish in defiance of a court ban. And given that the impartiality of the Maltese justice system is of paramount importance, this newspaper feels fully justified in publishing the details of an internal report in which the Courts appear to be concerned with their own impartiality: even if just in this one case.

But the same ruling suggests that such digressions are by no means limited to just this one case: the committee also dismissed Mifsud’s own arguments that he had in the past expressed his views on a number of subjects, including roadworks.

Ultimately, a balance has to be struck between respecting the Court’s decision to operate behind closed doors, and the right of the public to know when the Maltese justice system is itself in the dock.

In this case, MaltaToday felt the balance fell firmly in the latter’s favour.