Minister's husband has libel victory overturned

The appeals court has overtuned a judgment which ordered journalist Caroline Muscat to pay €10,000 in libel damages to the Equality Minister's husband Patrick Dalli

Equality Minister Helena Dalli and her husband Patrick Dalli
Equality Minister Helena Dalli and her husband Patrick Dalli

The Court of Appeal has overturned a judgment which ordered a journalist to pay €10,000 in libel damages to a minister’s husband.

The judgement, by the Court of Magistrates, had ordered journalist Caroline Muscat to pay €10,000 in libel damages to Equality Minister Helena Dalli's husband Patrick Dalli.

Patrick Dalli had previously successfuly sued Muscat for libel over a number of articles she had written on the Times of malta website in November 2014, alleging that there were various irregularities concerning work which was being carried out on Dalli's property in Zejtun.

In July last year, Magistrate Francesco Depasquale had found for Dalli and condemned Muscat to pay a total of €10,000 in libel damages.

The articles dealt with the controversy surrounding Dalli’s omitting to include a Zejtun farmhouse which is owned by PADA Builders Limited – a company listed as being owned by Dalli in her annual declaration of assets.

In one article, titled “Minister shuns questions over husband’s property”, the journalist pointed out incorrect assertions made by the minister to journalists regarding the promise of sale of the property, the accessibility of information regarding properties belonging to her husband’s companies from the Public Registry and her claim to have tabled the promise of sale agreement before Parliament.

Other articles dealt with the Dallis’ claims to have not been aware of having workmen on site in violation of a MEPA enforcement notice, in spite of the Dalli's residence being less than 100m away and vehicles belonging to PADA Builders being present while the illegal works were ongoing.

The Court of Magistrates, presided by magistrate Francesco Depasquale, had decided in Dalli's favour, saying that the courts should protect journalists investigating politicians but should also protect “private citizens whose only crime was being married to a politician.”

The magistrate had also concluded there had been no "hidden" assets involved, since all the properties belonging to Patrick Dalli were lawfully registered and could be easily traced through the Public Registry

But the Court of Appeal, presided by Judge Anthony Ellul has now overturned those judgments, saying that although Patrick Dalli was not a public figure in his own right, “in this case the target was not the plaintiff but his wife. Had he not been married to Minister Dalli there would have been no news value in the story.” This meant there was public interest in the works being carried out at the property belonging to PADA Builders Limited which was mentioned in the Minister’s declaration of assets, ruled the court.

It observed that Minister Dalli had declared herself and her husband to be 99% shareholders in the company PADA Builders Limited and had absolute control of the company as well as being the ultimate beneficial owners.

The judge noted that in 2012, PADA Builders Limited had declared and inventory of properties for sale valued at €1,722,996, in addition to over €2 million in assets. Other companies which the minister declared shareholding in, together with her husband, had assets running into the millions. Just because it was not mentioned that PADA Builders Limited’s accounts for the fiscal year showed liabilities exceeding assets did not mean that the defendant did not write the truth when she wrote that “up to 2012, millions of euro in assets were held by the companies, which declared a minimal profit, some even a loss.”

Whereas the first court had ruled that the journalist had the intention of damaging Dalli’s reputation, the Court of Appeal held that this was “pure speculation” which the magistrate had unjustly taken on board. “There is not one bit of evidence that could have led the first court to conclude that the Planning Authority denied the application to have the plaintiff correct the illegalities which he had in the property because of the articles.”

In addition to this, the court said that it could not see how writing that there were companies which had debts exceeding their assets could result in loss of reputation for Dalli. An incorrect statement of fact does not automatically mean it is defamatory, said the court. “The aim of libel laws is to protect and offer a remedy to those who suffer damage to their reputation.”

The judge paid compliments to the minister for accepting the criticism levelled at her without resorting to the courts. “[This is] a classical example where the libel laws were not used by a public person as a political weapon against freedom of expression, and it serves as an example.”

In both cases, the Court of Appeal overturned the judgment at first instance, acquitting Muscat of all liability.

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