‘Lawyers should not be businessmen,’ says retired judge

Government should not allow Malta to remain ‘at the tail-end of European professional standards’, Giovanni Bonello argues as he insists that practicing lawyers should not have businesses

Retired judge Giovanni Bonello
Retired judge Giovanni Bonello

Additional reporting by Liam Carter

Lawyers in Malta should be banned from doing business, according to retired judge Giovanni Bonello who pointed towards “anywhere in civilised Europe” to drive home the message that law should prohibit lawyers from engaging in trade or commerce.

Writing in the Sunday Times of Malta, the former European Court of Human Rights judge argued that, while not all lawyers who are involved in business are disreputable, “almost all disreputable lawyers, magistrates and judges also happened to have been businessmen”.

In his piece, Bonello opined that he had in the past suggested that a formal ban be added to a code of ethics for lawyers. However he had been told that lawyers could regulate themselves according to their conscience. That was 50 years ago.

“All Europe, Malta excluded, considers the autonomy and independence of lawyers to be a supreme value in a democracy, indispensable for the effective defence and the safeguarding of the rights of persons. It identifies the overriding profit motive inherent in business, its hazards and jeopardy as obstacles against this autonomy and independence, and an increased risk of bringing the profession into disrepute. It sees doing what is inherently incompatible as incompatible with the rule of law,” Bonello said.

He went on to add that both the British and the Italian systems, directly or indirectly, restrain lawyers and members of the judiciary from exercising acts of trade. “Veto, period,” he said.

Insisting that Malta should not remain at the “tail-end of Europe” in professional standards, Bonello urged the Maltese parliament to intervene and “align” Malta with the ethical standards of Europe.

Bonello’s recommendation comes in the wake of revelations that PN leadership hopeful – and lawyer – Adrian Delia holds a 9% stake in Mgarr Developments Ltd. The company, which is developing 80 apartments on the site of the Mgarr Bay Hotel, still owes €7 million of the original €12 million in loans it had taken out for the development.

It also follows statements by the same Delia that he would divest himself of his business interests once elected, which would only be possible once the debt has been paid off. 

Law Commissioner Franco Debono, a criminal lawyer by profession, told MaltaToday that he personally didn't think law practitioners should be banned from doing business.

“I don’t think you have to ban lawyers from doing business outright,” he said. 
“While I do think there should be the necessary safeguards to avoid any conflict of interest, I don’t think banning lawyers from doing business is the way to do things.”

Debono insisted that if someone is capable of practicing two professions he should do so, adding that “in some cases, the overlap between the two professions could be of great use”.

Ultimately, the outspoken lawyer added, Delia’s business dealings were the “only reason” the debate had come up, commenting that it’s politics that should not mix with business, rather than the legal profession.

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