A decision to transfer geologist Peter Gatt from the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology to a secondary school, was an abuse of power by college authorities and therefore null, a court declared.

Gatt’s legal saga started when he received an email from the permanent secretary at the Education Ministry in June 2021, informing him that the following day was to be his last day as lecturer at MCAST.

He had been lecturing at MCAST’s Building and Construction Engineering department since 2014 when he was first hired there on a one-year contract that could be renewed year-on-year.

He was later engaged on an indefinite contract. 

Gatt claimed that trouble with management and staff at MCAST brewed when he pointed out the “poor quality” of certain study units that he was expected to lecture upon. 

In September 2020, the college principal told Gatt that his detailing was being revoked. The lecturer was asked to hand back his equipment and keys to the college.

However, since the Manual on Resourcing, Policies and Procedures within the public service stipulated that such decision was subject to final approval by the Prime Minister, which in this case was lacking, Gatt continued to report at MCAST but was not assigned any duties. 

MCAST then filed disciplinary proceedings against Gatt.

In June 2021 a disciplinary board issued a 15-day suspension without pay and a warning that could result in the lecturer being fired for four years.

Meanwhile, Gatt took his grievances before the Ombudsman claiming that as from the start of that academic year, he was not “assigned classes, was not given a timetable of lectures, was forbidden to contact students within the institute…..and was removed from the department’s mailing list.”

In May 2021 the Commissioner for Education at the Ombudsman’s Office upheld the complaint “…to the extent and in so far as it refers to MCAST’s decision not to assign to [Gatt] any teaching duties and to his being prevented from contacting students for such a long period while still on the books of MCAST.”

Such an act was “oppressive and tantamount to degrading treatment of the complainant by the said institution,” concluded the Commissioner. 

Then came the communication from the Education Ministry informing Gatt that his detailing at MCAST had been revoked on June 11, 2021. 

He was to report at Pembroke’s secondary school as his new place of work.

Faced with the prospects of such a demotion, the lecturer sought and obtained a warrant of prohibitory injunction which was upheld by the First Hall, Civil Court in July 2021, effectively blocking the transfer

Gatt then filed an action against MCAST, its principal and deputy principal, the Prime Minister, the Education Minister and his permanent secretary, the permanent secretary (People and Standards) at OPM and the State Advocate, requesting the court to review the decision taken in his regard. 

MCAST pleaded that it was non-suited because it had nothing to do with the final decision approving the revocation of Gatt’s detailing at the college. 

However, the court, presided over by Madam Justice Audrey Demicoli, observed that the college played an active role in the process leading to the revocation of Gatt’s detailing at MCAST.

Moreover, since staffing matters fell within the competence of the college principal, namely Joachim James Calleja, both he and the institution were legitimately suited, the judge said. 

As for the merits, the court turned down Gatt’s claim that the administrative act was null because it breached his fundamental rights to protection against inhuman treatment and freedom of expression. 

Such a claim did not fall within the parameters of the ordinary courts. 

Nor could the authorities’ decision be annulled on the basis that they had not observed principles of natural justice or mandatory procedures. 

There was no abuse of power and no bad faith by the Prime Minister and/or the permanent secretary who simply acted upon the information supplied by MCAST.

However, Gatt’s claim merited being upheld on the grounds that the administrative decision constituted an abuse of power by a public authority since it was done for improper purposes or based on considerations that were not relevant. 

Evidence consisting of “a number of affidavits and volumes of emails” reflected years of disagreement between Gatt and MCAST’s administration.

In April 2020 Gatt had emailed the Education Minister stating that he had “no future or prospects at MCAST as a result of political discrimination instituted by a politically-minded and incompetent MCAST management that acts outside the parameters of the law.” 

MCAST authorities interpreted that as an admission that the college was not allowing Gatt the space to exercise his profession. 

In another email, Gatt complained that a particular study unit did “not make sense” to him and consequently, he could not lecture about something that did not make sense. 

When all was considered the court said that Gatt was right in claiming that he had been punished twice. 

The penalty handed down by the disciplinary board was a sufficient deterrent to ensure that Gatt would perform his duties as lecturer according to established procedures at the college and with respect towards its administration. 

Gatt’s attitude towards the staff and administration at MCAST and his reluctance to abide by standard procedures should not have been addressed by revoking his detailing but through disciplinary action. 

And that action was effectively taken.

The college’s request to transfer Gatt was an abuse of power because it was based on irrelevant considerations.

The letter issued by the education authorities on June 17, 2021, was null and void and Gatt was to be reinstated in the scale he occupied before the decision to revoke his detailing was taken. 

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