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An unwarranted decision

The President and the Justice Minister should put on hold their decision to go ahead with granting warrants to two students who may not be legally entitled to practise law.

When it emerged, earlier this year, that the two students could have a legal impediment in obtaining their warrant because they had been found guilty of theft, the Justice Ministry had announced it decided not to invite them to be given the warrants and that the students were asked “to regulate themselves with the law”.

It then transpired that the court judgment given in the case of one of the two students was no longer accessible online. Dr Bonnici put his foot in it by authorising the director general of the courts to exercise his discretion and decide on requests by individuals to remove from the public database the court judgments in which they were involved.

The decision gave rise to suspicion that there could be more than meets the eye in this story. This was confirmed a few days ago, a mere two months since the controversy erupted, when Dr Bonnici told this newspaper the two students would, in fact, be given a warrant to practise their profession.

He said the process had been stopped so the matter could be discussed with the parties involved. “We spoke, and there is still disagreement on whether [the two students] should be granted the warrant but I believe that since four judges gave the go-ahead for the warrant, it is my duty to grant it.”

The Justice Minister thus became the law himself. True, he says four judges gave their go-ahead but the former chief justice and the Chamber of Advocates disagreed.

When contacted, a spokesman for the President said the warrants would now be signed. According to law, it is the President who can authorise a person to work as a lawyer.

Asked to justify the decision, the spokesman said the President had noted the “unanimous backing from the judiciary” for the warrants to be granted to the two students.

The spokesman specified that when speaking about “unanimous backing”, the President was referring to the four judges who had examined the students. It seems the same applied to the minister, though he was quoted by L-Orizzont as telling Parliament earlier this week all judges and magistrates backed his decision.

In reply to an article appearing on The Malta Independent on Wednesday, the association declared clearly there was no general agreement among the judiciary on whether the warrants should be issued or not.

This is what it said (translated from Maltese): “The article [on The Malta Independent] implies that all members of the judiciary agree that the Justice Minister should sign the warrants of the two lawyers in question. A number of members of the judiciary informed the [association] committee they were not approached by anybody. It is, therefore, incorrect to say that the Justice Minister enjoys the support of all members of the judiciary so these lawyers could receive their warrant.”

There can only be one conclusion: the Justice Minister rushed into deciding the warrants can be issued. Worse, it is possible he gave the wrong advice to the President. That is a very grave mistake, clear resignation material.

The President should be spared of such uncomfortable situations. If any advice has already been given it should be withdrawn forthwith.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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