2020 Sliema double murder case awaits ethics ruling on change of defence lawyers

The case against Daniel Muka, accused of the murder of Chris Pandolfino and Ivor Maciejovski, has been delayed

Pandolfino and Maciejowski, were murdered in their Sliema home
Pandolfino and Maciejowski, were murdered in their Sliema home

The case against the man accused of the 2020 murder of Sliema residents Chris Pandolfino and Ivor Maciejovski, Albanian national Daniel Muka, has been delayed until a committee regulating lawyers issues a ruling after the accused tried to engage a new lawyer without paying his previous one.

Lawyer Noel Bianco, who has represented Muka over the years in proceedings so far, told the court that while he wanted the case to proceed, he still expected to be paid for his services.

The Chamber of Advocates’ Ethics Officer, Lawyer Keith Borg was summoned to the stand when the case continued before magistrate Nadine Lia this morning.

He explained that it was up to the new lawyer to ascertain that the previous lawyer’s fees had been settled in full before taking on the brief. “The onus is on the new lawyer to ensure that his colleague has been paid. It is in the code of ethics. Otherwise it would have to escalate to the Commission for the Administration of Justice.” 

Despite a release being granted in this case, Borg clarified, it was done “without prejudice to such fees being outstanding. Any new counsel should ensure that previous counsel are paid in full prior to taking up the brief. Furthermore, any further ruling would be issued by the Committee for Advocates and Legal Procurators and/or the Commission for the Administration of Justice.”

Presiding magistrate Nadine Lia observed that it was therefore a “Pyrrhic victory” for Muka’s defence. “You have a release but you can’t use it,” she said.

The Chamber representative protested that the Chamber could only escalate the matter to the Commission, and could not do anything else in the circumstances.

The court asked whether the issue constituted a breach of ethics. “The new lawyer could be subject to a possible ethical complaint, which could lead to proceedings, yes,” Borg replied.

Muka declared to the court that he wished to engage lawyer Daniel Attard, who in turn noted the advice given by the Chamber.

“There is still a pending dispute on fees,” minuted the court. “Therefore, since Attard cannot effectively perform his duties as legal counsel, Borg informs the court that the matter will now be escalated to the Committee for Advocates and Legal Procurators for a ruling.”

The committee had not been constituted for some time and was reconstituted some months ago, the court was told. Magistrate Lia observed that this issue had already been pending for over two months. “This case cannot be at the mercy of a Committee that is going to take its time to look,” she said, pointing out that the case was a potential trial by jury.

Lawyer Roberta Bonello, appearing for the parte civile argued that the matter shouldn’t stop the proceedings. Superintendent James Grech agreed, arguing that it was a payment issue.

The court pointed out that the issue of payment was stopping the case from proceeding, adding that efforts to solve the matter should be expedited, in view of judicial time frames. “Time is of the essence.”

Bonello’s client suggested that the court issue a statement of fees so that the family might pay it, saying that it was in their interest to have the case continue. “We all know what is happening here.” The court informed the man that it could not have a position on this offer.

“All I can do is stress that the Chamber must deal with this.”

Time is an issue, in view of the fact that the 20-month period for the issuing of the bill of indictment against Muka will soon expire, after which the accused would have a stronger case for release on bail. This was too much for the brother of one of the victims to bear. He stood up and angrily addressed the court. “This is not acceptable, the risk of this man walking free because his lawyer hasn’t been paid.

Addressing the magistrate directly, he said: “You will kill my mother and father if he's released on bail!” before cursing and walking out of the courtroom.

Magistrate Lia calmly disregarded the man’s angry reaction, telling the lawyers that these were complications which the court could not enter into and stressed the urgency of the situation.

Bianco insisted that he had to follow the Code of Ethics. The parte civile, Mr. Pandolfino, addressed Bianco directly: “If he doesn’t want to pay you, he won't…he’ll be the same. In two weeks' time he’ll be out.”

The magistrate ordered the man out of the courtroom, but observed the sensitivity of the issue. The court dictated a note, ordering the Committee to make a decision.

Superintendent James Grech argued that all that was required was the court to read out the Attorney General’s note of renvoi, “it doesn’t require any defence input.” “The court must be correct in all it does,” replied the magistrate.

“I cannot agree with the court,” Grech insisted. “This is something which has already been done before.” 

Magistrate Lia asked Muka whether he consented to having the court proceed with reading out the note of renvoi from the AG office, as he was unrepresented. He did not give his consent. “How long is this going to continue? It’s been over two months that I have no representative,” Muka said.

Grech informed the court that it appeared that when the case file was exhibited, even though the court had confirmed the court-appointed experts in the magisterial inquiry, this fact was not minuted in the acts of the proceedings. The prosecution requested the court to minute the confirmation of experts.

The court asked Muka what his position on this issue was. He replied that he was not in a position to reply in the absence of legal counsel.

The case continues next week.