‘Magistrate misquoted me’ says former Chief Justice of Miriam Pace decision

Magistrate Joe Mifsud misquoted and misrepresented De Gaetano decisions in ‘mindless cut-and-paste’ in Miriam Pace verdict

Magistrate Joe Mifsud
Magistrate Joe Mifsud

Chief Justice emeritus Vincent De Gaetano has called out sitting magistrate Joseph Mifsud over repeatedly misquoting a sentence of his, and even misrepresenting it by leaving out the negative clause ‘not’ to change its meaning entirely.

In a rare display of indignation, De Gaetano spelled out his impatience at the recurring mistake in a letter to The Times of Malta.

He referred to Mifsud’s decision handed down last week in connection with the involuntary homicide of Miriam Pace, when he served the two architects responsible for the building works that caused the collapse of Pace’s home and caused her death, with 800 hours of community service.

In his judgment, Mifsud quotes De Gaetano as saying: “The courts do not have to reflect public opinion. On the other hand, they must disregard it.”

But De Gaetano wrote that this was not the first time Mifsud had employed this inference, allegedly referencing his own previous decisions, and pointed out a double error.

In De Gaetano’s judgment, delivered in a criminal case led by the police against Maurice Agius in 2009, the former Chief Justice quotes what Lord Justice Lawton said in a judgment of the English Court of Appeal.

However, Magistrate Mifsud’s judgment misrepresents what Lawton said, because the quotation reads that while the law courts should not have to reflect public opinion, “on the other hand, they must not disregard it”. Emphasis on that all-important ‘not’.

“Leaving out the adverb ‘not’ gives a totally different nuance to what Lawton was trying to say,” De Gaetano complained.

According to De Gaetano, this was the third time that Magistrate Mifsud has “totally misrepresented Lawton’s words, citing me in the process as the indirect source for that misquotation.”

He then refers to two other criminal cases brought against Wayne Caruana in 2017 and Claus Reisch in 2019. “This mindless cut-and-paste without bothering to check the original judgment from which Lawton’s quotation is taken is a disservice to the administration of justice,” De Gaetano complained.

Misquoting is not uncommon in court judgments, as De Gaetano was quick to show: he has found 19 judgments in the court database where magistrates use the word “contracettazione” (Italian for contraception) instead of the correct verb “contrettazione” when referring to Francesco Carrara’s definition of theft. This definition was adopted in the 19th century in default of a definition in Malta’s criminal code.

Magistrate Joe Mifsud last week said that public opinion was important in the case, but pointed out that the courts were not there to satisfy the public opinion.