Chief Justice lashes out at journalists for asking ‘compromising’ questions

Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi has a go at journalists for publishing a decision of the Commission for the Administration of Justice that reprimanded a magistrate

Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi had harsh criticism for journalists as he gave his annual speech marking the start of the court calendar.

Azzopardi was addressing assembled members of the judiciary and the legal profession in Hall 22 of the law courts this morning.

“As someone recently wrote in a local newspaper, it is easy to attack members of the judiciary because you know they can’t answer you,” he said.

His speech was addressed to “those persons who every now and then send some questions to my secretariat and ask for a reply (if you please, by a certain date that they fix themselves)”.

Azzopardi continued: “I say persons because I exclude from these those true journalists, professionals, who know what they should and should not ask. To these persons who ask questions that should not be asked by ‘true’ and serious journalists, I say: please therefore understand that we aren’t the politicians or chairmen of parastatal bodies that you normally send questions to and expect an answer.”

The Code of Ethics for the judiciary prevented them from answering, he said, pointing out that every word they said could lead to their recusal from cases that come before them. “And our obligation isn’t to abstain but to decide cases,” Azzopardi said.

The start of the court calendar year is an occasion for the Chief Justice to speak publicly
The start of the court calendar year is an occasion for the Chief Justice to speak publicly

Without making direct reference to MaltaToday, Azzopardi also insisted that proceedings concerning members of the judiciary in the Commission for the Administration must, according to law, be held in chambers and not in public.

He noted with displeasure that recently the disciplinary committee had decided a case and the complainant had been notified. “You all know what happened next. Before the decision arrived before the Commission for the Administration of Justice, this appeared in the newspapers. Presumably the complainant had rushed to the newspaper, which gave no heed to the order that it not be published. This without anyone taking into account that an appeal had been tabled before the Commission,” Azzopardi said.

Read the MaltaToday report on the Mifsud case here.

In the same way as the judiciary could not arbitrarily decide not to follow the law, neither could the press. “Nobody has the right to decide to ignore the law because he feels it is unjust. If the law is anachronistic or outdated, it should change and not be broken.”

Azzopardi was presumably referring to a MaltaToday report last August that Magistrate Joe Mifsud had been reprimanded by the Commission for the Administration of Justice over an ethics breach.

The newspaper decided to report the outcome of the case decided by the commission because it was in the public interest to know when members of the judiciary are disciplined.

In other comments in his speech, the Chief Justice, who is also the vice president of the Commission for the Administration of Justice, a constitutional body that disciplines the judiciary, said that some opinions could only be expressed after retirement.

“This all means that today I cannot speak about very important material that I know some of you are expecting me to speak about, and that is the appointment of members of the judiciary, because before our courts there is a case dealing with this material,” Azzopardi said.

This type of controversy was nothing new, he said, pointing to the autobiography of Sir Arturo Mercieca, who had written about it in the 1920s and 30s.

Azzopardi did take the opportunity to clarify how the Judicial Appointments Committee works.

“I will simply assure those hearing and reading this speech that this Committee is scrutinising in a most minute manner the applications it has and is not serving, as perhaps some might have thought, as a rubber stamp. So much so that we have had to refuse a number of them.”

Chief Justice Azzopardi also praised the magistrates for their hard work. “Each and every one of them is carrying more than their load.”

He suggested that anyone who was thinking of becoming a magistrate because it was a comfortable job, should speak to some magistrates first to get an idea of the great responsibility and workload this role entailed.

“Magistrates can be compared to water containers that overflow with every added drop of water put into them. The people should be thankful for their taking on of an ever-growing workload,” he said.

Azzopardi pointed out that judges were people appointed by other people “and not divine inspiration” and were therefore subject to error.
The Chief Justice ended his speech with praise for Madame Justice Lorraine Schembri Orland who had started a new position in Strasbourg and Magistrate Paul Coppini who will retire this month.