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Constitutional court finds breach of rights in libel ruling

Council divided along party lines

The Constitutional Court has ruled that a libel judgment delivered by the Court of Appeal in 2008, in which two men were found to have libelled the Fgura local council, was in violation of their fundamental human rights.

This judgment was delivered following a constitutional application filed by Mark Lombardo and John Zammit. The court ordered that they be refunded the money they had paid as damages.

In 2001 an issue arose about a project in Hompesch Road, Fgura on which the council members were divided along party lines. The issue had been given prominence in the media.

Mr Lombardo, a council member, wrote a letter which was published in the newspaper In-Nazzjon on August 23, 2001. At the time John Zammit was the newspaper's editor.

In his letter, Mr Lombardo criticised the mayor of the council and claimed that he was misleading the population of the locality.

The Fgura council filed a libel suit against Mr Lombardo and Mr Zammit and its case was upheld by the First Hall of the Civil Court. On appeal the judgment was confirmed but the Court of Appeal reduced the damages award from €6,988.12 to €3,494.06.

Mr Lombardo and Mr Zammit then filed a constitutional application claiming that their fundamental human right to freedom of expression had been violated by the court judgments.

Last March, the First Hall of the Civil Court dismissed the constitutional application and Mr Lombardo and Mr Zammit appealed to the Constitutional Court composed of Chief Justice Vincent Degaetano, Mr Jusitce Joseph A Filletti and Mr Justice Tonio Mallia.

On appeal the two men claimed that their fundamental human right had been violated because a legal entity such as a local council could not be a plaintiff in a libel suit. They further submitted that the libelling of a local council mayor was not tantamount to libelling of a council.

The Constitutional Court declared that it was not a court of third instance and was not going to review the proceedings which had taken place in the ordinary courts. The function of the Constitutional Court was that of ruling whether the judgments of the ordinary courts had been delivered in a manner which violated the men's right to freedom of expression.

A local council, as a government organ, was subject to criticism but this did not mean that it could be libelled or insulted. Furthermore, although a council had to be more tolerant of criticism than an individual who was not in public life, there still had to be limits to the criticism. A local council could be a party to a libel suit.

The Constitutional Court noted that the criticism written by Mr Lombardo was not directed against the local council but against the mayor. At no time had Mr Lombardo, himself a councillor, attacked the council but he had criticised the behaviour of the mayor who, he claimed, was misleading the local people.

Mr Lombardo had in fact declared that the council had acted properly but that the mayor had a partisan interest in the issue. However the courts had assimilated the direct criticism of the mayor with a direct criticism of the council. As a result Mr Lombardo and Mr Zammit was faced with a charge that they had libelled not only an individual but an official entity.

The charge of libel could not be enlarged and made more serious by making criticism of an individual criticism of a government authority.

The court therefore upheld the appeal and ruled that as a remedy it was ordering the local council to refund Mr Lombardo and Mr Zammit the damages award they had already paid.

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