Chamber of Advocates warns authorities against taking 'shortcuts' that target lawyer-client privilege

A practice note on the subject of Legal Professional Privilege, came in the wake of unprecedented police raids on the offices of DF Advocates last month

Chamber of Advocates President, Louis Degabriele (left)
Chamber of Advocates President, Louis Degabriele (left)

The Chamber of Advocates said that public authorities seeking privileged client information, should go through other avenues instead of targeting lawyers' documents.

The statement, contained in a practice note published today on the subject of Legal Professional Privilege (LPP), comes in the wake of unprecedented police raids on the offices of DF Advocates last month, where the police seized client files relating to the controversial private hospital concessionaires Vitals Global Healthcare.

After receiving a direct order from the inquiring magistrate, the law firm complied with the request, under protest. The firm also raised the issue with the Chamber of Advocates.

The issue was mentioned by the President of the Chamber of Advocates, Louis Degabriele, in his speech marking the opening of the court year this morning.

“We should dispel the idea that reliance on LPP is some means of encouraging the shielding of wrongdoing,” Degabriele stated.

In terms of Maltese law, LPP cannot arise where a lawyer’s assistance has been sought to further a crime or fraud, or other equivalent conduct for a criminal purpose. Rather, many of the circumstances where LPP applies, are precisely those where individuals or companies are trying to do the right thing through seeking legal advice, explained the Chamber in its note.

The criminal code states that the police cannot have access to, seize or retain anything which is subject to legal privilege.                            

“Principally, the assertion of privilege should be viewed in the wider context of each situation in which it arises: if the privileged information is available elsewhere, then that is where it should be sought in the first instance.”

In a circular accompanying the note, the Chamber said it “shall continue to jealously protect this fundamental right of clients against any and all attempts to dilute its effect. It is the law that creates this fundamental protection, and the Chamber will vigorously defend against any attempt by any investigating authority to interpret the law in any manner that would lead to the practical erosion of this fundamental right and to take shortcuts in inquiries and investigations, by seeking to obtain privileged communications from advocates rather than their clients.”