Twenty-two judgments have been removed from the court’s online public database since Justice Minister Owen Bonnici privately gave his go-ahead.

However, it could not be established which judgments were removed because the Court Registrar deems that publishing their content would “defeat the purpose of the whole exercise”.

The decision made by Dr Bonnici introducing “the right to be forgotten” was discovered only by coincidence when Times of Malta was investigating lawyers’ warrants last month.

When Times of Malta asked why a criminal court judgment involving law student Yanica Barbara could not be found on the online public system. A spokesman for the minister said Dr Bonnici had authorised the director general of the courts to exercise his discretion and decide whether to accept or otherwise requests by individuals to remove from the public database the court judgments in which they were involved.

It was not stated when the minister had made his move and why he did not go public about it.

Judgments still available through court’s internal database

The spokesman defended the decision on grounds that it was based on new data protection laws to be introduced across the EU next month.

Following a request for more information under the Freedom of Information Act, this newspaper was informed that a decision had been made on 23 requests so far and 22 court judgments were removed.

One request was rejected.

At the same time this newspaper submitted its formal request for information (March 9), the director general of the courts, Frank Mercieca, was considering another 20 requests. Mr Mercieca pointed out that, though no longer listed in the public search engine, the judgments in question were still available to lawyers through the court’s internal database.

Asked to say which standards applied when deciding whether to accept or reject requests, Mr Mercieca said there were various established criteria. These included the reason for the request, the time since from the date of judgment and if there’s “a negative effect on other citizens”.

Mr Mercieca, who is also the court’s data controller, said he took into account the provisions of the Data Protection Act and the new EU data protection rules still to be introduced as well as international court judgments.

Dr Bonnici had said last month there were no written criteria because he “had full confidence in Mr Mercieca’s discretion” and that “it was up to him to decide if a court judgment should be removed or not from the database”.

Law practitioners were very critical of what they considered to be an administrative decision by the Justice Minister that was never publicly communicated and also of the fact that, rather than to the judiciary, giving the say to a public servant answerable to a politician.

A spokesman for the European Commission said more time was needed to study the Maltese situation when asked whether the discretion granted to the director general of the courts was in line with the new General Data Protection Rules that come into force next month.

However, the spokesman insisted that “it is not a general right that would give the right to remove everything someone does not like… The right to be forgotten is by no means unconditional”.

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