Judge’s refusal to remove himself from Panama case breached Simon Busuttil’s rights

A Constitutional Court has ordered Judge Antonio Mizzi to recuse himself on the Panama Papers appeals against a magisterial inquiry

A judge has upheld a request by former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil that a case involving the Panama Papers not be heard by Judge Antonio Mizzi because of the possibility of a conflict of interest due to the fact that that the judge's wife is a Labour MEP.

Judge Mizzi had been due to hear appeals filed by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, together with businessmen Brian Tonna, Karl Cini, Malcolm Scerri and Adrian Hillman against a magistrate’s decision to green light an inquiry in their regard.

Those appeals were assigned to Mizzi, prompting a challenge by Busuttil on the grounds that the judge’s wife, Labour MEP Marlene Mizzi, had expressed her views on the Panama Papers scandal. After Mizzi refused to step aside, Busuttil had filed a separate constitutional case claiming a violation of his right to a fair hearing and requesting that the appeals be assigned to a different member of the judiciary.

In a manner most crystal clear Mr Justice Mizzi should move aside Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon

The first hall of the civil court in its constitutional jurisdiction upheld his request on Thursday and ordered that the case be assigned to another judge.

Lawyer Jason Azzopardi, who appeared for Busuttil in the proceedings, requested that should any appeal be filed, time-frames for appeal should to be shortened. “This case is about a magisterial inquiry which must be decided urgently,” Azzopardi remarked.

However, the opposing counsel argued that this would remove a safeguard to the right to a fair hearing.

After hearing the arguments of both parties Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon ruled that “in a manner most crystal clear Mr Justice Mizzi should move aside, even if only in the best interest of the administration of justice, all semblance of doubt about every decision and provision he would make.”

The constitutional case was a step in the process started when Busuttil called upon the Maltese courts to launch a magisterial inquiry into a number of high profile Maltese figures mentioned in the Panama Papers leak - chief among them the prime minister's Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi.

Magistrate Ian Farrugia, presiding over the case, had decreed that the prerequisites for an inquiry had been met, and gave the green light for a magisterial inquiry to establish whether money-laundering laws had been broken by government officials opening offshore companies in Panama.

But the seven subjects of the inquiry each filed separate appeals to this decision, which lengthened the process significantly. The appeals were assigned to be heard by Judge Mizzi, which was the catalyst for Busuttil to challenge the judge's suitability to hear the case on the fact that the judge's wife had publicly expressed an opinion on the Panama Papers scandal.