€10,000 fine for COVID quarantine breach is null, judge rules

Constitutional court clears man’s €10,000 COVID-19 fine over human rights breach

File photo
File photo

The First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction has struck down a €10,000 fine imposed over a breach of COVID-19 quarantine rules. 

In a decision handed down on 3 March, Madam Justice Miriam Hayman ruled in favour of Nicholas Gatt, who had claimed that the €10,000 fine served on him by the Environmental Health Directorate for allegedly breaching quarantine rules during COVID-19, was null and void. 

Gatt had contested the fine and had later received a summons, ordering him to appear before a Commissioner for Justice. 

His lawyers, Natalino Caruana De Brincat, Joseph Calleja Parnis and Ivan Mifsud argued that those proceedings breached article 39 of the Constitution, which protects the right to a fair hearing. This, the lawyers had argued, was because of the fact that the alleged infringement was subject to a fine of €10,000, which meant that the case had to be heard by a court of criminal jurisdiction, and not a Commissioner for Justice. 

In a preliminary ruling delivered on 16 September 2021, the Commissioner for Justice presiding over the Tribunal had dismissed Gatt’s preliminary pleas, on the basis that the Tribunal was acting in accordance with laws passed by Parliament. Gatt’s lawyers subsequently filed an application to the Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction to seek redress. 

Citing the Engel Criteria, a three-point test adopted by the ECHR to establish whether a sanction imposed by law renders the proceedings which gave rise to it criminal in nature, the man’s lawyers highlighted the fact that the fine applied to all citizens equally, was not intended as compensation for damages and was intended as a punitive deterrent, as well as being of a considerable magnitude. This meant that the penalty was intrinsically criminal in nature and therefore had to be heard by a court of criminal jurisdiction. 

Gatt’s lawyers also cited a 2013 decision by the Constitutional Court in Federation of Estate Agents v. Director General (Competition): although there were differences between the two cases – in the 2013 case the Director General acted as the prosecutor as well as the judge – Madam Justice Hayman ultimately held that the Local Tribunal, presided by a Commissioner for Justice, was not a ‘court’ as required by the Constitution of Malta. 

The judge also ruled that the court's declaration that the proceedings before the tribunal were null, constituted “just satisfaction’ for the plaintiff and that no further compensation was necessary. 

Lawyers Natalino Caruana De Brincat, Joseph Calleja Parnis and Ivan Mifsud appeared for Gatt. State Advocate Chris Soler represented the State, Justice Minister, Health Minister and Superintendent of Public Health who were the defendants in this case.