The date of a judgment is essential for its validity

An incorrect or an unclear date of a criminal judgment will annul the judgment itself

An incorrect or an unclear date of a criminal judgment will annul the judgment itself.

This was held in the Police vs Eyob Melake Ecobagaber, decided by the Court of Criminal Appeal on 23 January 2024 presided over by Mr Justice Neville Camilleri.

The Appellant, Ecobagaber, was accused of rape and of arresting or detaining a person against his or her will. He was also accused of causing slight bodily harm. He was accused of being recidivist of a judgment delivered in May 2018.

The Magistrates’ Court found that the Appellant was not guilty of being a recidivist, but found him guilty of the other offences and awarded him a nine-year prison sentence.

Ecobagaber appealed the judgment asking the Court of Criminal Appeal to annul the judgment in order for him to be declared not guilty. The Appellant’s first ground of appeal was that the judgment is null and void and that his details mentioned in the judgment were wrong and therefore, it is unenforceable.

The Appellant explained that that after the articles of law, as listed by the Attorney General were read out, the minutes of the case, indicated that the Court was acting as a court of criminal inquiry and in its jurisdiction of a court of criminal judicature.  Mr Justice Camilleri pointed at a different defect found in the proceedings. The acts of the case included a judgment signed by Magistrate Dr Donatella Frendo Dimech dated 7 March 2022. There was another informal copy of the judgment, which was a download from the ecourts system. The Court staff testified that the handwriting was not of the Magistrate. Another court office held that the writing was hers, but was not present in the court sitting in question. She did not rule out that both officials could have been in court at the same time.

The Court of Criminal Appeal held that not every irregularity will annul a judgment. Article 382 of the Criminal Code reads as follows: “The court, in delivering judgment against the accused, shall state the facts of which he has been found guilty, shall awardpunishment and shall quote the article of thixas Code or of any other law creating the offence.”

Therefore, any departure from what is required in this article of law, would affect the validity of the judgment. The Courts have always held that these elements should be followed scrupulously. The Court argued further that these elements are not just formalities but are essential to make sure that a judgment is clear and does not create any doubt in the mind of the accused. It is not uncommon for judgments to contain some small errors and as such not necessarily mean that the judgment is null and void.

The precise date of the judgment is not listed in Article 382 of the Criminal Code, however caselaw has shown that this detail is indispensable for its validity. The date provides certainty on when judgment was given. The date dictates the period in which an accused may appeal from a judgment and it is the starting point from when the accused would have been found guilty of an offence. For the court this is an obvious indispensable element of a judgment. The uncertainty of the date would make the judgment null and void and it may be raised by the Court itself. This point has been raised in a number of judgments such as the Police vs Peter Axisa, decided on 30 November 2017, the Police vs Joseph Mifsud, decided on 3 December 2019 and the Police vs George Gatt decided on 25 June 2020, where there was a difference between the date written on the judgment and the date found in the acts of the case.

The Court quotes extensively from a judgment delivered on 8 July 2022 in the Police vs Justin Mallia and from the Police vs Joseph Pullicino, decided on 23 March 2023. In the last judgment, the Court had held that even though it was obvious that there was a typing error, this mistake could not be corrected.

In the case before the Court of Criminal Appeal, the Court held that it was not clear when the date of the judgment was written. In fact, the judgment which was uploaded on the ecourts site did not have a date. The Court held that the proper way was if the date was handwritten, there would be an annotation and a signature.

The Court ordered that the acts of the case be returned to the Magistrates’ Court. The Court emphasised that it was not annulling the proceedings.