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Defending his position

Chris Said interviewed following his shock resignation.

Photo: Jason Borg

Photo: Jason Borg

For many people your resignation was like a bolt out of the blue. Is that how it was for you?

No, it wasn’t like that for me because I had decided I would resign if faced with this situation a while ago. I was set on this course when the case was still being heard before a magistrate in Gozo... I am convinced I did nothing wrong and that this thing revolves around something that is really trivial, a small inaccuracy on my part.

However, the charge itself is serious and, therefore, I decided, early on, that should there be a decision, by whichever institution – be it the police, the Attorney General or the court – to charge me, I would have resigned.

Three institutions – the police, the Attorney General and a magistrate’s court – decided there were no grounds; however, the Court of Appeal took a totally different position and ordered that action be taken. So, at that point, as soon as I knew on (Thursday) morning, I left for Malta to inform the Prime Minister of my decision. I actually wrote my letter of resignation on the ferry.

So were you expecting this decision by the courts?

No. I was hopeful that the appeals court would confirm what the other three institutions had decided on previously. However, I respect the decisions of our courts. It also has to be pointed out, though, that the appeals court did not decide anything in my regard. It is unfortunate that certain sections of the press spun the story in a way that seemed as though I had been found guilty of perjury. This is not the case.

To be honest I only read the appeal judgment once. I did not have the courage to go through it again, but the gist of it is that the appeals court held that given that there is a challenge, the matter should be decided by a court.

The court said the magistrates’ court should not have gone into the merits of the case but simply decided whether there was a prima facie case on which to proceed.

You said during your press conference on Thursday that you regretted not being able to speak to your mother before addressing journalists.

Yes, because I didn’t want to alarm her by breaking the news on the phone. I knew she would take it badly if I told her over the phone, so the first thing I did when I returned to Gozo in the evening was to go and see her. When she saw that I was okay, that I was not broken, she was fine. Like any mother obviously that is what’s important to her... not the sort of position I’m in.

Then I came home and found a sea of people waiting for me. To be honest I was very heartened by people’s reaction, not just Gozitans but of people I have worked closely with, especially Labour mayors and councillors.

The messages of support from people within Labour stand out because it is not so expected. That tells me that the work I have done in the past years with local councils is being recognised.

When it came to sleeping, I slept serenely, straight away. For the first time this morning, the alarm did not ring at 5 a.m. I woke up at 7 a.m. and found that my son had got up before me.

Do you see a silver lining in this?

I believe that in life it’s useless looking at the negatives. You are faced with circumstances... it could have been this resignation, or, God forbid, some sickness or other problem in the family. So you always have to look at the positive side.

I’ll give you a small example with my own family. After nine years of marriage we decided to adopt two children. Then, one-and-a-half-years later, we had a baby boy.

Looking back at things, in those nine years we used to feel that this was a problem, but if things had not gone that way, we would not have adopted those two children we love so much today.

Of course I’m upset; I wouldn’t be human if I weren’t. But on the other hand, this period will give me the opportunity to focus more on my family.

I also plan to work closer with my constituency. Maybe it’s a blessing that after two-and-a-half years the people who elected me will feel I am closer to them.

But there are also the financial implications of this decision, which you have to face. Currently you are jobless.

Yes, and my wife, who is a teacher, recently decided she would stop working for a period of time. Yesterday (Thursday) was precisely the first day of school. But I believe in God’s providence. Currently my only income will be the salary for my part-time role as an MP, but we have the support of our families...

Ironically, there were some who commented that this happened to me because I still practised as a lawyer. This is not the case, of course. I gave evidence in a case which was the effect of my previous work as a lawyer.

Unlike others, I did not keep a legal office. My office was dismantled. Some have their offices run by other lawyers so they can then go back to it eventually.

I didn’t keep my office, partly because I had decided I would not work any longer in the courts and secondly because I remember the Prime Minister clearly telling us not to do any private work if we were to accept public office.

You said you would instruct your lawyers to ask for the case to be heard with urgency. Within reason, how long do you expect it to take?

It does not depend on me. What I can do is ask my lawyers to make a request – as the law permits – for this case to be heard with urgency. Whether that request is accepted is up to the courts.

What would that mean in practical terms? Would the case be concluded in six months, for example?

No, less than that. I would think it should take six months if it takes its normal course. You have to look at the nature of the case. If you have a case in which a lot of witnesses must be heard, that would take a lot of time. In this case, there is the plaintiff and documents.

I will not be the one to decide this, but it seems to me that in one sitting the court would be able to go through the evidence. After that, whoever is presiding would be able to deliver judgment.

Anthony Xuereb and his lawyer are saying their case does not revolve around the fact that you made a mistake on the time but that you declared that the court had decreed to award care of the child to the mother after having heard both parties and that this had an effect on the custody case.

The Family Court had, in fact, heard both sides in the evening sitting. At the end of this sitting the court confirmed the temporary decision it had taken earlier that afternoon in camera. In my testimony, which I gave more than two years later, I didn’t mention the temporary decision taken in camera earlier that day, since I was testifying from memory, and I was not present when this decision was given.

On the contrary I remembered the late evening sitting since it is unusual to have sittings that late. But Mr Xuereb could have easily pointed out this error right away to his lawyer during cross-examination. Instead he opted to file a letter to the police about this omission more than a year, 13 months to be precise, after I had testified.

I also should add that my testimony in April 2009 did not have any effect on the custody case. In fact, in its decision the court did not even refer once to my testimony.

But whatever the case, Mr Xuereb is saying this could have had an impact on his case.

Mr Xuereb said in open court that my testimony was not prejudicial to his case and there are at least four lawyers who can testify to this. Moreover, a magistrate does not decide a custody case on the basis of these things but on substantial issues like who is going to take best care of a child.

In fact, in a decision given on June 25, 2010 (which is now in appeal stage), the court gave a list of reasons supporting its ruling on custody and none of them stated it was doing it because Chris Said filed an application and then filed another one. Moreover, as far as I’m aware, Mr Xuereb and my former client still have joint custody of the child up to this day.

Mr Xuereb instituted a constitutional case claiming that his right to a fair hearing had been breached when his side was not heard during this hearing.

I was not involved in any way in this case, but I am informed that both the Constitutional Court and the appeals court in its constitutional jurisdiction did not accept Mr Xuereb’s claim.

The other side is now saying that if you are ready to make a statement to the effect that you made a mistake, they would not be interested in the outcome of this case any longer.

This is dishonest, because my lawyers had discussed this with his lawyer before, and it was not accepted. Are they accepting this now? To me these things are inexplicable.

This offer was made already through my lawyers in the past months. I have no problem clarifying the matter... all of this refers to documents which have been submitted in court... I had no interest in lying and this would have made no difference to the case.

During the press conference, when asked about Justyne Caruana and the possibility of this being a politically-motivated attack, you said you would leave it up to the people to decide. She issued a statement pointing out that she was not Mr Xuereb’s lawyer in the perjury case against you...

Yes, that is right. Justyne Caruana was never Mr Xuereb’s lawyer in this challenge...

But when you said you would leave it up to the people to decide, are you saying this because you suspect something, but would rather not comment on it explicitly?

I would not like to reach any judgment at this stage, though there are certain elements which cause me to start reaching a conclusion.

Are you referring to the fact that the Labour press has been following this case for a while now?

That is one of them, but I also believe that Dr Caruana (she was his lawyer in the custody case) was the one to preclude her client from moving with this charge.

What went on behind the scenes I cannot say, but what gets to me is that there was an incident in Parliament. I was one of the five MPs who heard Dr Caruana vote no in that infamous sitting...

From that day forward, Dr Caruana did not speak to me, even though on different occasions I had tried to speak to her. But still, I respect her and respect her work as an MP. But I will not be the one to reach judgments.

But that still leaves a question mark. You’re saying that you have a gut feeling Dr Caruana was the one who held back Mr Xuereb from making the perjury challenge but since then, this issue came up and...

The challenge was filed two days after the incident in Parliament and a year after I gave my evidence. Those are facts. The formal complaint was not signed by Dr Caruana but by Anthony Xuereb.

After that, the challenge was not done by Dr Caruana but by another lawyer and I respect the fact that though she is his lawyer in the civil case and was the lawyer present during the disputed hearing, she was not the one to appear in the challenge. I respect her for this decision.

Do you feel this incident could spell the end of your political career?

Yes, it could. But the sense of correctness in politics demands that if I have to end my political career here, I have nothing to fear. I have no fear of the prospect of having to take this decision.

Obviously, I would be terribly disappointed if this happens. I have worked hard to be where I am today and my family bore the brunt of this with me. I am in a difficult district in which seats are almost inherited, although that is changing. But if I look back, there is nothing I should be ashamed of, and, if need be, I would end my political career. I am convinced this will not be the case, but when I think about it, that would be my decision.

In the past few months there have been several resignations involving mayors – an area which fell under your responsibility – which people found hard to comprehend. The Żebbug mayor being prosecuted for allowing his daughter to use a council laptop comes to mind. Don’t you feel that these kind of resignations blur the line between genuine cases of maladministration/corruption and other situations?

It is a question of striking a balance. In this country we always speak about not having a culture of resignations. Now, because there is this culture of resignations... though one has to also point to previous cases such as that of Lawrence Gatt, Charles Mangion and John Dalli...

But they were rare cases. Do you feel your resignation is on a par with the behaviour of the political class in general? Do you feel it is run-of-the-mill?

No, I don’t think it is run-of-the-mill, but, in my case, I felt that even though the matter hinges on something trivial, the charge I am facing is serious so I felt I could no longer remain in public office.

So you felt you had no alternative?

No, I knew there would be no alternative if this outcome developed.

The salient sequence of events

Early in January 2007, Chris Said, then mayor of Nadur and lawyer, filed a court application on behalf of his client, Helen Milligan, a British citizen who lives in Gozo, for her child to be returned to her.

Three weeks earlier, Ms Milligan gave birth to a planned child with her former partner Anthony Xuereb but the relationship between the two went sour. He told her to leave the house and she was not able to see the child.

In the application filed by Dr Said, three things were requested: that an urgent case be heard; that the mother be granted care of the child until the case is heard; and that once the case is heard, the court would give the mother temporary care of the child with appropriate access to the father.

The court ruled that the case would be heard in three weeks, but ignored the other requests.

The duty magistrate changes in Gozo on Friday at noon and Dr Said decided to withdraw the first decree and file it again before a different magistrate.

This was on Friday, January 19, 2009. The second decree was filed and the magistrate decided in camera (without hearing any witnesses), that the child should go back to the mother and also that the hearing on temporary custody would take place on January 23.

Mr Xuereb, that same day, made a counter application, saying that the child should not go back with the mother and insisting that the case should be heard immediately.

The magistrate decided to hear the case with urgency that evening at around 7.30 p.m.

The court issued another decree, reiterating its earlier decision to leave the child’s care to the mother, pending the hearing on temporary custody.

Perjury or mistake?

The line in which Mr Xuereb claims Dr Said lied under oath is the following: “With regards to the first application the court has set a sitting, an urgent sitting, I remember it was late in the evening, and after having heard submissions of the parties and their counsel, the court decided that the baby had to be returned to my client”.

Mr Xuereb is stressing that the court had not heard his side in the afternoon hearing in which it first decided that the child should return to the mother. The court had not heard any submissions during the afternoon sitting but it had heard the arguments of both sides in the evening sitting, which was called urgently at Mr Xuereb’s request.

The court rulings

On August 20, 2010, Magistrate Anthony Ellul ruled on a challenge which Mr Xuereb made against the police for their decision not to prosecute Dr Said for perjury.

The magistrate ruled that Dr Said had made a mistake, because no submissions had been heard in the sitting indicated by the former parliamentary secretary. However, the magistrate pointed out that according to the law, for a mistake to be considered perjury it would have to have a “material bearing on the case” and he ruled that this was not the case.

However, in a decree on Thursday, Mr Justice Michael Mallia overturned this decision on appeal. Mr Justice Mallia ruled that the first court should not have gone into the merits of the case but should have simply ascertained whether there was a prima facie case against Dr Said.

The very finding, by the first court, that a passage in Dr Said’s testimony did not square up with the facts meant that there was this prima facie case, Mr Justice Mallia ruled.

In passing judgment on whether this is a mistake or perjury, the first court had gone beyond its remit, the appeals court held. Mr Justice Mallia ordered the police to take action so guilt, or lack of it, could be established by a competent court.

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