Chief Justice reverses decree to reassign magistrate for Pilatus investigation

Latest twist in saga over recusal of magistrate in Repubblika police challenge: Constitutional Court reverses judge’s interim order to reassign magistate in case

Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti (centre)
Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti (centre)

Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti has reversed a decree reassigning a case, filed by Repubblika against the Police Commissioner, to Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit.

This emerges from a directive issued by the Chief Justice referring to the 11 November decree which had ordered the suspension of an interim measure, assigning the case to a new magistrate, as the reassignment had not yet been formally concluded. Due to an administrative error, he says, the case was assigned to Stafrace Zammit on 14 November, in spite of the ruling. 

The 14 November assignment has now been revoked "in order to leave the issue of reassignment unprejudiced until a final decision is handed down by the Constitutional Court."

This is the latest twist in a case filed over the saga of resistance against the NGO’s request for the recusal of Magistrate Nadine Lia from presiding a case it filed against the Commissioner of Police, over the failure to carry out the prosecutions recommended by the magisterial inquiry into Pilatus Bank.

Repubblika is now asking for clarification over the reversal of the judge’s interim order.

Mr. Justice Ian Spiteri Bailey’s interim order originally reassigned the challenge proceedings filed by Repubblika, to Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit.

But that decision appears to have been suspended, with Repubblika’s lawyer Jason Azzopardi claiming to have received an email from Stafrace Zammit’s deputy registrar, informing him that a directive from the Chief Justice was reversing that reassignment, and Magistrate Stafrace Zammit was therefore abstaining from hearing the police challenge case on Wednesday.

“Repubblika is shocked and sincerely is not understanding what is happening behind its back, as the email sent this morning by the Deputy Registrar of the Court of Magistrates, seems to imply that a decree was issued by the Constitutional Court on Friday 11 November, concerning it.” Repubblika states that it had not received a copy of the decree “till the very moment this application is being filed.”

Last Thursday, lawyer Jason Azzopardi was informed by the Criminal Court registrar that the challenge proceedings – a request for the police to investigate former directors of Pilatus Bank – had been assigned to a new magistrate by lot. The NGO had previously filed a constitutional challenge to force magistrate Nadine Lia to recuse herself from hearing this challenge. That request was first denied, then reversed by Ian Spiteri Bailey in an interim measure on 27 October. The State Advocate appealed that decision.

But the drawing of lots for the new magistrate to preside the challenge proceedings happened on 10 November, reassigning the case to Claire Stafrace Zammit, before the outcome of the Constitutional hearing.

The NGO said it was “very concerned and perplexed” at finding out on Tuesday morning, of the Chief Justice’s directive. “Reading between the lines, it implies that on 11 November 2022, this honourable Court had issued a directive which would have an impact on Repubblika without giving Repubblika the opportunity to be heard.”

The court application states that Azzopardi himself had not been made aware of the revocation of the reassignment order, until he was asked about it by the press.

Repubblika said the principle that both parties are heard by the Courts before a decision on an important issue should have translated into it being heard before the reassignment order was revoked. Arguing that this constituted a state of prejudice before even being heard, Repubblika requested the court to issue the necessary orders to ensure that it was treated in the same manner as the State Advocate, including by being notified of every development concerning its case.