The week that shocked Malta

What an eventful and mostly horrible week it was. During last week three very prominent people declared that they, as well as the country, were shocked by news about members of the judiciary. These are Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, the Chief Justice Emeritus and current Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino, and the Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Muscat.

The people expect action; concrete, incisive and decisive action. And, quite rightly, they expect it fast
- Fr Joe Borg

Last Tuesday the Ombudsman wrote to President George Abela, in his capacity as President of the Commission for the Administration of Justice. This unprecedented step was followed by a second unprecedented decision. The letter was published.

The Ombudsman said the Commission should use its moral authority to ensure that Mr Justice Lino Farrugia Sacco would be relieved of his duty while investigations into his role in the Olympic ticketing scandal are concluded. The Ombudsman stated that he had written to the President because “this case has shocked me as indeed also our nation”.

There were two reasons Said Pullicino could have used to justify taking the comfortable position of sitting on the fence. The law states that the Parliamentary Ombudsman is precluded from expressing an opinion on the judiciary. This could have been enough to justify Said Pullicino saying nothing. However, he felt he had the duty to express an opinion on the effect the actions of the judiciary have on the administration of justice.

The second reason is that Said Pullicino knows, as everyone does, the attitude of Farrugia Sacco towards moral arguments. He has consistently ignored the decision of the Commission asking him to resign from the chairmanship of the Olympic Committee as this goes against the Code of Ethics of the judiciary.

The Ombudsman’s letter showed his mettle. He should be thanked for acting the way he did. Such actions provide a ray of hope in the hearts of common people that all is not lost in the judiciary.

Two days earlier the Prime Minister had publicly said that Farrugia Sacco should resign. The judge’s retort shows the level of his elegance. He just said that the Prime Minister “irid idaħħak” (is trying to be funny).

How could a judge stoop so low?

Similar bad judgement is evidenced in Farrugia Sacco’s reaction to the letter of the Ombudsman. He launched a criminal libel case against the Ombudsman.

Has no one has ever told Farrugia Sacco that when one is in a hole one should stop digging? It is a case of saying that Farrugia Sacco “irid ibikki” (is being pitiful).

The case now sits on the lap of the current Chief Justice, who chairs the Commission for the Administration of Justice in lieu of the President who abstained from the case due to professional connections before he became President.

When seen in the light of the mother of all shocks meted out on Thursday, the above looks like dew compared with a deluge. The country was devastated by the news that Mr Justice Ray Pace was arrested and then arraigned in court accused of bribery, trading in influence and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Gonzi and Muscat took a strong position on the issue; both hinted that the judge could be impeached unless he voluntarily resigns.

The position of Muscat was welcome news especially since he had not supported the Prime Minister’s request for the resignation of Farrugia Sacco. On that case Muscat just said that that one should wait for the Commission of the Administration for Justice.

These two pieces of horrendous news should be taken in a wider context of events which helped erode people’s trust in our judiciary. Farrugia Sacco (as noted above) and Magistrate Antonio Mizzi had been censured by the Commission for the Administration of Justice because their actions broke the judges’ own Code of Ethics. They just ignored the Commission. Some years ago, the sitting Chief Justice and another judge were found guilty of corruption and sent to jail.

Another judge spent years not reporting for work because of what he described as a conscientious objection but kept pocketing the salary just the same. An attempt to impeach him was thwarted by the Labour Party.

Add on top of these instances the myriad sentences and decisions which left the general population as well as many people amply versed in legal matters in total astonishment.

The popular perception is that our courts are not to be trusted. Unfortunately, many believe we should stop speaking of the “bank tal-ġudikatura” when we refer to effective, efficient and honest judges. Their number is small enough to justify reference to “il-banketta tal-ġudikatura”.

I do not share this pessimistic and cynical perception of our magistrates and judges; but I have no doubt that I am just part of an ever shrinking minority in this respect.

People have always been sceptical of the way the courts mete out justice. This is not just a Malta phenomenon. The above referred-to events are seen by most people as proof that their scepticism and suspicions are justified.

Judges and magistrates should not take comfort in the strict observance of the law; more is expected from them.

Just saying that what they do is not against the law is a poor line of defence. Their Code of Ethics should be more sacred than the law. It is not just Caesar’s wife that has to be above suspicion.

The uttering of pious platitudes by people in power will not allay the deep concern of the population at large which today is based on both condemnations by the courts and censuring by the Commission for the Administration of Justice.

The people expect action; concrete, incisive and decisive action. And, quite rightly, they expect it fast.

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