Court mistaken in finding human rights breach for Patrick Spiteri

Constitutional Court rules first court’s conclusion that fugitive Patrick Spiteri had suffered human rights breach was mistaken

Patrick Spiteri
Patrick Spiteri

The Constitutional Court has overturned a 2021 judgement by the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction, in which it had been declared that disbarred lawyer Patrick Spiteri suffered a breach of his fundamental human rights as a result of his arrest and detention.
Spiteri is facing fraud and misappropriation charges in a €7.4 million case, dating back 20 years.

He had been arrested in Surrey, England in 2017 and extradited to Malta on the strength of at least seven European Arrest Warrants.

After previous attempts to take him into custody had failed, the Maltese authorities had sent a doctor to accompany arresting police officers, in order to certify him as fit to travel, in view of his claim of being unable to travel due to a rare medical condition.

Spiteri’s lawyer, Stefano Filletti, had subsequently filed a constitutional case against the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Police before the First Hall of the Civil Court, claiming that he had been detained under a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) which was not accompanied by a local arrest warrant, and that this constituted a breach of his rights.

In a decision handed down by Madam Justice Anna Felice in October 2021, the First Hall of the Civil Court, in its Constitutional jurisdiction had ruled that Spiteri’s fundamental right to liberty and freedom of movement were being breached by the fact that the restrictions on his movements, in particular travel, were not made on the strength of a national warrant of arrest.

Both parties filed cross-appeals to the Constitutional Court, with the Attorney General and Commissioner of Police on one hand asking the Constitutional Court to overturn the finding of a breach, and Spiteri on the other hand asking the inverse.

Spiteri’s lawyer, Stefano Filletti, argued that not only was his arrest null due to the lack of a Maltese arrest warrant, but that the European Arrest Warrant issued against was also null.

The Attorney General and Commissioner of Police challenged this claim, arguing that the first court had failed to recognise the fact that a national arrest warrant had, in fact, also been issued. This arrest warrant had been exhibited in the acts of the criminal case and had been signed by a Maltese magistrate, who had specified that “this warrant is being issued for Spiteri’s arrest and extradition to Malta for his prosecution in connection with these crimes,” and contained the words “You are to execute this warrant of arrest.”

In fact the British authorities had cooperated with Spiteri’s extradition on the basis of a European framework decision which presupposed the existence of a domestic arrest warrant as an indispensable formality, the Maltese authorities had pointed out.

They described Spiteri’s arguments as an afterthought aimed at weakening the case against him, pointing out that he had not contested the validity of his arrest at the arraignment stage. “Had the plaintiff not absconded, there would have not been any reason to issue and execute an EAW,” added the Maltese authorities.

After examining, in the light of case law, the reasoning used by the first court to reach its decision, in a judgement handed down on Thursday, the Constitutional Court presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, and judges Giannino Caruana Demajo and Anthony Ellul ruled that the lower court’s decision was incorrect.
The court observed that the plaintiff was not asking for the revocation or alteration of the decision in the impugned judgement, but for a revision of the reasoning adopted by the first court.

“In the understanding of this Court, this ground of appeal is legally unsustainable. Once the plaintiff is not requesting the reformation of the First Court’s decision on the finding of a breach of his rights, he cannot ask this court to reform the legal considerations upon which that judgement is based without changing the conclusion. The function of this court is one of revision and it is clear that the court cannot carry out this function, if that which the appellant is asking of it, is effectively the confirmation of the First Court’s conclusions.”

The Court ruled that the arrest warrant was a local one, issued by the Court of Magistrates, and based on domestic legislation. A reading of the warrant shows that it represents an order by the Court of Magistrates to the Commissioner of Police to arrest the plaintiff and keep him in custody with the aim of prosecuting him on the charges with which he is charged.

The court said it disagreed with the First Court’s ruling that had held that no domestic arrest warrant had been issued against Spiteri.

The judges also disagreed with Spiteri’s assertion that an arrest warrant, issued under the particular legislation used in his case, did not contemplate the continued detention of the subject once returned to Malta and arraigned.

In fact, noted the court, he had himself accepted that there were valid reasons for him to be detained, when his lawyer had declared that he was not going to be requesting bail. His subsequent requests for bail had been turned down by the courts “in view of his untrustworthiness.”

“It does not appear that the Court of Magistrates was unreasonable with regards to Spiteri’s bail, when considering the fact that a few months after his arrest, he had already been granted bail, despite having spent years on the run from Malta, and through which the pending criminal proceedings against him were being stultified.”

The court observed that Spiteri had failed to keep the Maltese courts updated with the progress of his treatment and his expected date of return, so much so that nobody was appearing on his behalf for sittings.

Spiteri’s claim to have never been a fugitive from justice was contradicted by the evidence, said the court.

“His behaviour during those years when he was effectively on the run did little to give rise to the court’s trust,” said the judges, agreeing with the strict measures imposed by the Court of Magistrates to ensure his attendance for court sittings and finding no breach of his fundamental right to liberty.

With regards to the First Hall’s decision to find a breach of his fundamental rights by the restrictions on leaving the Maltese islands, the Constitutional Court ruled that “it is clear that this conclusion was mistaken” and revoked the judgement, in view of the fact that the restrictions did, in fact, have a basis in law.

For these reasons, the court revoked the judgement being appealed and denied all Spiteri’s requests, also ordering the costs of both stages of the proceedings to be borne by Spiteri.