No breach of Liam Debono's human rights, court rules

Judge rejects human rights breach claim filed by Liam Debono, who is awaiting trial for running over a policeman in 2018

Liam Debono
Liam Debono

A judge has rejected a human rights breach claim filed by Liam Debono, who is awaiting trial for running over a policeman in 2018.

Debono was just 17 when he was accused of the attempted murder of PC Simon Schembri whom he ran over during a traffic stop, dragging the officer for nearly 360 metres. Schembri suffered life-changing injuries as a result.

Debono, now 22, was subsequently also jailed for five years for breaching a probation order and a driving ban whilst on bail for the hit-and-run incident.

He had filed a constitutional application in 2021 claiming that his right to a fair trial had been breached and demanding moral damages.

Debono had been dropped by his lawyer, whom he accused of “not wanting to appear for him and refusing or dilly-dallying in granting him release so that he could engage someone else.” For a time Debono had been assisted by legal aid counsel, but this was limited to hearings before the Court of Magistrates and had no authorisation to file an appeal.

He argued that this had deprived him of the possibility of filing an appeal against his prison sentence for breaching his bail conditions.

Debono is currently indicted and awaiting trial for the attempted murder of Schembri, who was nearly killed when he was run over by the then underage driver, suffering a collapsed lung and fractures to his pelvis and ribs. Schembri’s right arm had to be amputated below the elbow as a result of the injuries he sustained.

He argued that the wall-to-wall media coverage the incident received at the time also prejudiced his right to a fair trial.

However, these claims were given short shrift by the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction. In a judgement handed down yesterday, Mr. Justice Grazio Mercieca ruled that had Debono felt that the presumption of innocence had been breached by the media, he had every opportunity to raise this issue before the court of Criminal jurisdiction hearing that case. Besides, said the judge, the Government is not responsible for what is published in the media.

“In any case, society in general should be informed about investigations into serious crimes which lead to a person being charged in court and this because it is in the public interest that the public is aware of what is happening in the country, through the media,” ruled the judge.

Mr. Justice Mercieca also noted that Debono had not filed an appeal to his five-year sentence - something Debono attributed to the fact that his previous lawyer had refused to file an appeal and also refused to sign a release that would allow him to find another lawyer.

The court noted however, that Debono had not informed the Criminal Court of this alleged difficulty, thereby failing to use the procedural tools available under ordinary law before filing these proceedings, before a court of last resort.

The judge slammed the increasingly common practice of rushing to file a Constitutional case without first having recourse to procedures before the ordinary courts, calling it “an abuse”.

“A serious abuse that entirely banalises the extraordinary process before the courts as guardians of fundamental rights, and leads to a great deal of waste of precious time and energy, to the detriment of other citizens…”

Debono’s second complaint, about the media publicity surrounding his case, was also rejected. “Here too, the applicant did not use the tools available to him under the ordinary law.”

In view of the failure to first exhaust ordinary remedies, the court declined to exercise its powers with regards to Debono’s claims, also ordering him to bear the costs of the proceedings.