Court upholds government request to shorten appeal timeframe on Vitals-Steward case

Steward Healthcare has 20 days to appeal contract annulment, court rules

A judge has upheld the Government’s request to shorten the timeframe in which Steward Healthcare may file an appeal to the recent court decision which abrogated the hospital privatisation contracts granted to Steward’s predecessor, Vitals Global Healthcare.

In a decision handed down this morning, Madam Justice Miriam Hayman observed that shortening the 30-day appeal timeframe was undoubtedly a procedure of an exceptional nature, because it dealt with a compulsory matter of public order which was established in procedural law.

“The Court understands Steward's objection to the request, as the disputed judgement is a voluminous one and one which it is challenging. But it is equally certain that discussions and studies on the disputed points, or some of them, have already been carried out, and this is in fact clear from the reply.”

On the other hand, the judge also recognised that the issue was one of “profound public interest, in that it affects services of an essential nature for obvious reasons because it relates to health, as well as the public purse.”

The judge said she must, on the one hand, assure the defendants that they will be allowed sufficient time to file a properly studied appeal, and on the other hand resolve the dispute as soon as possible, as required by the Government and the plaintiff.

The court also observed, contrary to what the Government was claiming, the Court of Appeal was not precluded from also hearing witnesses, as the law allowed that option subject to the court’s discretion as to its necessity.

The duty of the court was to maintain a balance between the rights and claims of all the parties involved, said the judge, adding that every party involved had to be given the opportunity to read and digest the judgement.

The Court considers that such a balance would be reached were the term of the appeal to be shortened to twenty days, as it had been before recent amendments in this regard.

This term would not impinge on the right to a fair hearing and also allowed time for a sufficiently studied appeal application to be submitted, in view of the complexity of the case and volume of documentation involved.

State Advocate Chris Soler appeared on behalf of the government. Lawyers Nicholas Debono and Daniel Buttigieg represented Adrian Delia. Steward was represented by lawyer Joseph Camilleri. Lawyers Stefano Filletti and John Bonello appeared on behalf of the other defendants.