Updated 1.47pm with statement by the Chamber of Advocates.

The rule of law group Repubblika, the Chamber of Advocates and ADPD have slammed a conversation Prime Minister Robert Abela said he had last week with a magistrate about court sentencing.

Abela on Sunday reiterated his call for tougher sentences by the courts to send a message to society. Speaking in Birkirkara, the prime minister said he had had a chat with a magistrate who told him that even when the lower courts imposed tough sentences, they were inevitably reduced on appeal, citing previous judgments. 

Repubblika said it was shocked by the prime minister's statement. 

It pointed out that the code of ethics for judges and magistrates lays down that they: “shall not however communicate in private with members of the Executive on any matter connected with their duties or functions except through or after express consultation with the Senior Magistrate and/or with the Chief Justice.”

The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct said this was essential for the independence of the judiciary from other institutions, not least the government: “Although there must of necessity be some institutional relations between the judiciary and the executive, such relations must not interfere with the judiciary’s liberty in adjudicating individual disputes and in upholding the law and values of the constitution.”

The fact that the prime minister spoke privately with a magistrate about her and her colleagues' sentencing, and then spoke about it like nothing out of the ordinary had happened, was an affront to judicial independence, Repubblika said.

It also led one to suspect that the prime minister could have had other such conversations, probably to discuss inquiries or judicial proceedings that could affect him personally or politically.

Separation of powers essential

In a democracy, separation of powers was essential. It was already bad enough that for many, parliament was no longer independent of the government but now the prime minister was openly telling the members of the judiciary that they should hand down their sentences according to what he told them privately, the group said.

If the prime minister did not like the laws, he should go to parliament and change them.

Repubblika said it was urging President George Vella to defend the separation of powers as required by the Constitution. By keeping silent, it said, he would be helping the prime minister continue to trample the independence of the judiciary and continue to seize power that the constitution did not allow him to have. 

Chamber: Not the role of the courts to send messages

In a separate statement, the Chamber of Advocates said it was disappointed by the prime minister's statement.

It was not the role of the courts to send a message to anyone, the Chamber said. Rather, judges and magistrates had to take independent decisions based on the law and on the evidence before them.

Anyone who made generic statements about how the courts should have decided certain cases, without detailed reference to the evidence, would only be making a superficial evaluation.

If any messages needed to be conveyed to society, then it was up to the politicians to legislate, and the judges would then apply the laws, the Chamber said. 

As for the conversation between the prime minister and a member of the judiciary on matters related to their functions, the Chamber insisted that this was not allowed by the code of ethics of the judiciary unless authorised by the chief justice. This was a basic principle that needed to be always respected. 

The Chamber noted that the prime minister had criticised MPs who are also lawyers (Abela said Opposition MPs had a conflict of interest when they criticised his statements and then went to court to plead for reduced sentences).

The Chamber insisted that a clear distinction has to be made between the roles of a lawyer and a politician. The duty of a lawyer was to provide the best defence for his client according to law and the code of ethics.  The political role went beyond any court case and is the expression of a personal opinion.

In its statement, the Chamber said it recognised efforts for the allocation of more resources for the administration of justice and called for talks for a reform plan including reforms of the procedural laws, judicial and administrative resources and a reform of the legal profession.

ADPD calls for meeting of the Council for the Administration of Justice

Carmel Cacopardo, chairperson of ADPD, the Green Party said the very fact that the meeting between the prime minister and a magistrate has taken place, even if it was an unplanned encounter, was worrying.

"It is very worrying that the prime minister meets with a member of the judiciary, a magistrate, and discusses with him/her the decisions delivered by the courts. This behaviour is censurable, both that of the prime minister as well as that of the magistrate, whose identity is so far unknown," he said. 

Cacopardo urged the president to call an urgent meeting of the Council for the Administration of Justice for the necessary action to be taken.

New Standards Commissioner asked to investigate

Independent election candidate Arnold Cassola said he had written to the Office of the Standards Commissioner, asking the new commissioner to investigate the case, once he is appointed. 

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