Plea of res judicata declined as merits not discussed in initial case

A plea of res judicata was rejected because the merits of the case were not examined in the first instance

By Jodie Darmanin

A plea of res judicata was rejected because the merits of the case were not examined in the first instance. Despite the Maltese Courts' commitment to upholding the principle of res judicata for legal certainty, the plea is dismissed if the doctrine's elements are not fulfilled.

A recent case illustrating this is PJP vs Deputy Curators of DF et al., decided by Judge Jacqueline Padovani Grima of the Civil Court (Family Section) on 30 May 2024.

This case was initially brought by the plaintiff's mother on behalf of the plaintiff, who was a minor, against FF, appointed as curator for the heirs of DF, to challenge the paternity of her son.

Upon reaching adulthood, the plaintiff initiated a second case for the same purpose.

In its decree of 15 June 2023, the Court ordered ex officio FF and his siblings, the heirs of the deceased DF, to join the second case. The claimant was instructed to notify these joinders with the initial court application and subsequent acts.

The joinders were given 20 days from the notification date to submit any preliminary exceptions. FF and his siblings then raised the exception of res judicata.

The plaintiff argued that the merits of the case were not addressed in the first instance, where only preliminary exceptions were decided.

The plaintiff also stated that he had new evidence regarding DNA samples taken from DF while he was in the hospital.

The Court went into detail about the three requisite elements of the res judicata doctrine.

It reiterated that the subject matter of the dispute must be identical in both cases (eadem res), the parties involved in both cases must be the same or represent the same interests (eadem personae) and the legal grounds or reasons for the action must be identical in both cases (eadem causa petendi) for the doctrine to apply.

The Court emphasised that the doctrine applies not only to issues that were debated in the first instance but also to those issues that should or could have been discussed in the first instance but were not.

In its analysis, the Court quoted the judgment Francesco Aquilina vs Neg Giuseppe Gasan et decided by the Court of Appeal (Commercial Section) on 5 November 1934 where it held that in determining whether a case has already been judged the court would have to examine the issues treated in the flagged case and not simply the motivations.

The Court also referred to the judgment Camilleri Elsa vs Briffa Joseph decided by the Court of Appeal (Inferior) on 24 November 2003 whereby it stated that once a court of law has not pronounced itself on the merits of an issue in the operative part of a sentence, the appellants had every right to safeguard their rights.

Ultimately, the Court found that the second and third requisites for res judicata – eadem personae and eadem causa petendi – were not met since the first case's sentence only addressed preliminary exceptions without hearing the merits. Thus, the plea of res judicata by the joinders to the case was dismissed.