Constitutional Court rules against Sea Watch in case over vessel's detention

NGO Sea Watch claims breach of property rights over four month detention of ship in Valletta port • Constitutional Court rules case was filed nine days late

Humanitarian rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3
Humanitarian rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3

The Constitutional Court has dismissed a case filed by the sea rescue NGO Sea Watch, in which the NGO claimed that a four month detention of one of its ships in Valletta’s port due to administrative shortcomings, had breached its property rights, ruling it had been filed nine days too late.

The case was originally filed in June 2018, after the Sea-Watch 3 entered Valletta port for maintenance and a scheduled certification inspection. It asked for permission to leave the port on 30 June, but the Maltese port authorities did not issue the necessary permission for it to leave, initially claiming that “checks” were holding up the permit.

On 13 July, after almost two weeks in port, the authorities sent the NGO a letter explaining they were awaiting the results of a Dutch flag-state inspection, which had occurred a week earlier.

Towards the end of August that year, the ship had been informed it would have finally be receiving authorisation, but this was cancelled at the last minute without explanation. When the ship was finally allowed to sail on 22 October, almost four months from its intended departure date, there was no formal decision or change in circumstances, it said.

Sea-Watch had alleged the authorities were “assisting the Government in its work to stop [rescue] vessels operated by NGOs.”

In September 2021, Mr. Justice Lawrence Mintoff, presiding the First Hall of the Civil Courts had dismissed Sea Watch’s case, noting problems with the ship’s registration, the captain’s qualifications and insurance cover, had been flagged.

The NGO had filed an appeal 29 days after that judgement had been handed down.

In its reply, the Malta Transport Authority argued the appeal was time-barred, pointing to subsidiary legislation amended in 2009, called the “Court Practice and Procedure and Good Order Rules.” These rules stipulate that appeals must be filed within 20 days, and not the 30 days, which applied under the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure.

In its decision, handed down on Wednesday, the Constitutional Court upheld the transport authorities’ argument, saying the claim that the COCP regulated the issue was unfounded. Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, together with judges Giannino Caruana Demajo and Anthony Ellul, pointed out this a widely accepted legal doctrine, that a specialised law is given more weight than a general law on the central issues of the specialised law.

The judges observed the time period for the tabling of the appeal was a legal issue and a matter of public order, saying therefore it would not be possible for it to bring the appeal in line with the law.

The case was declared null and dismissed, with costs to be borne by the NGO.