Times of Malta editor-in-chief Steve Mallia has deplored 'interference' by the Chamber of Advocates in a case that concerns a libel suit filed against the newspaper by four serving and former executive members of the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses.

In a statement issued earlier in the day, the Chamber of Advocates criticised an editorial in last weekend’s edition of The Sunday Times of Malta, saying it was an attempt to influence public opinion to support it so it could avoid payment of its dues.

Mr Mallia said: "Why has the Chamber – which was not mentioned in the editorial and nor is any practising lawyer – decided to enter into the merits of a case that concerns this newspaper and other parties? And, furthermore, why has it expressed an opinion on the status of a judgment by Madam Justice Jacqueline Padovani Grima that we will be citing to support our position in court. Such interference is abhorrent and deplorable."

The issue concerns a libel suit instituted by executive members of the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN), led by former president Paul Pace, against the newspaper. The case was over a front-page article which revealed that the nurses’ union group committee chairman at Mater Dei Hospital had swindled vulnerable patients out of hundreds of euros in collaboration with a salesman posing as a doctor.

The story was correct, however, the committee members claimed the story’s sub-heading which stated ‘Top MUMN official investigated’, referred to them.

A Magistrate’s court ruled against the newspaper and ordered editor Steve Mallia and head of News Ariadne Massa, author of the article, to pay €11,500 in damages.

An appeal court reduced the damages to €4,000 and the newspaper filed an application before the Constitutional Court. However, the MUMN officials demanded to be paid before the case was decided and last week a court issued a garnishee order against the journalists, freezing their personal accounts and their salaries.

In its editorial on Sunday, the newspaper described the action as a “vindictive attack”.

However, the Chamber of Advocates this morning said the newspaper’s claim that it was entitled not to pay out the damages pending the judgment of the Constitutional Court was “at best doubtful and is certainly not established case-law.”

Mr Mallia said: “Unlike the Chamber seeks to imply, we fully acknowledged that lawyers will differ as to the position we have taken on this issue – by stating the following in the editorial: ‘Some lawyers will argue that the damages awarded by the appeals court should have been paid before the Constitutional Court case is heard and might also say that the warrant is standard procedure.’” 

The Chamber also criticised what it said was the editorial’s incorrect implication that the magistrate, who happened to be the duty magistrate when the warrant was filed, should have, or could have abstained from issuing the garnishee order. The magistrate was the same one who had decided the original libel case against the newspaper.

Mr Mallia said it was worrisome that the Chamber misunderstood what was said in the editorial.

“We did not express surprise that the magistrate who signed the warrant was the same magistrate who decided the original case. We stated the following: ‘So you can imagine our surprise last Wednesday when the garnishee order, signed by the same magistrate who delivered the original judgment, was served.’

Most people who would read that sentence properly would realise that the surprise was directed at being served with a garnishee order in these circumstances – not at the magistrate who signed it – hence the insertion of commas when reference was made to him, Mr Mallia said in his statement.

“This was merely a statement of fact. There is no “paranoia” on our part as the Chamber is unfairly alleging, though the question needs to be asked whether it lies elsewhere.”

Mr Mallia also objected to the claim by the Chamber that the newspaper was attempting to “influence public opinion on supporting it to avoid payment of its dues”.

“Firstly, we are well aware that public opinion has no influence on this issue or on the judiciary; secondly, it is an outright lie to state we are trying to avoid payment,” the statement said.

He insisted that on the basis of judicial precedent, the newspaper had all the right to hold payment until definitive closure of the Constitutional proceedings.

“There is no question of payment not being effected if it is due, and everyone concerned with the case is aware of this. We would have expected the Chamber of Advocates to be aware of this too. As for its allegations of ‘abuse of power’, perhaps the Chamber should have reflected on its own words a little more carefully before casting stones.”

 

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