Court awards Keith Schembri €300 compensation over freezing order rights breach

Former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri has won a court case contesting a freezing order over his commercial activities

Keith Schembri (centre)
Keith Schembri (centre)

Former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, has won a court case contesting a freezing order over his commercial activities.

The order listed 91 people and companies, including Schembri and his accountants at Nexia BT, Brian Tonna, Karl Cini and Manuel Castagna. It ordered the freeze on suspicion of money-laundering offences.

Firms belonging to Schembri had their assets frozen last September, after an attachment order was issued by a court at the request of the Attorney General. 

In a decision handed down this morning, Mr. Justice Lawrence Mintoff presiding the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction, said it was “not reasonable and certainly could not be said to be the aim of the legislator” to have a person affected by a garnishee under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act to cease to function commercially for a period of a year or until a bill of indictment is issued.

This was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which required a balance between the general interest of the state and the interest of protect the fundamental right of the individual, said the court.

The court found that article 4 of Chapter 373 didn't reach this balance and cannot be said to be proportionate between the measures given in this article and the right to peaceful enjoyment of property.

The court has already had the opportunity to express itself on other remedies to counterbalance and avoid the companies suffering a death blow.

The court said that the applicants are to have the right to have recourse to the court issuing the order requesting the revocation or changes in conditions and restrictions imposed by the order. They must have the opportunity to make their own submissions.

It would then be in the discretion of the Criminal Court to decide whether there is a breach of enjoyment of private property.

The garnishee order caused negative consequences to the applicants who had no tools to contest it. For this reason the court said the request for liquidation and payment of moral damages is justified.

The court awarded €300 to each of the 23 plaintiffs in moral damages.

Costs of the case were divided ¼ to be paid by the applicants and ¾ at the defendant’s expense.

Court ordered that a copy of the judgment be given to the Speaker of the House.

Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo appeared for the plaintiffs.