A constitutional court has declared that NGO Repubblika could not claim that its fundamental rights would suffer if challenge proceedings filed by the group were to continue to be heard by Magistrate Nadine Lia. 

This was the outcome of a judgment delivered on Friday in the ongoing court saga revolving around Repubblika’s attempts to challenge the Police Commissioner to prosecute former top officials at Pilatus Bank, following directions by an inquiring magistrate who investigated suspected financial crimes at the now-shuttered bank. 

Those challenge proceedings were assigned to Magistrate Lia who, in view of her familial ties to lawyer Pawlu Lia, was deemed by Repubblika as having a conflict of interest.

After failing to obtain the magistrate’s recusal, Repubblika filed a constitutional lawsuit claiming that its fundamental right to a fair hearing would be breached if Magistrate Lia were to continue to hear the case. 

The magistrate’s father-in-law was the lawyer of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief-of-staff Keith Schembri. 

He was the lawyer who set out the terms of reference for the Egrant inquiry wherein Pilatus Bank featured prominently. 

Another court had upheld Repubblika's request, suspending the challenge proceedings and ordering their reassignment to a different magistrate. 

But the State Advocate successfully appealed that decision. 

The matter finally landed before the First Hall, Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction, presided over by Madam Justice Audrey Demicoli who, after hearing all evidence in a marathon session in December, deferred the case for judgment. 

On Friday, the court observed that in light of its founding statute, Repubblika was not set up in the private interest of any of its members, but in the public interest in general. 

Therefore, it followed that the challenge proceedings had been filed in the public interest. 

Whatever the outcome of that challenge, it would not impinge upon the private, personal or economic interest of any of the group’s members. 

For the purpose of assessing its claim regarding the breach of its right to a fair hearing, Repubblika could not be considered as victim in terms of the European Convention and the Constitution. 

Even, if only for argument’s sake, the group, as the party who filed the challenge proceedings, were to be considered a victim, Repubblika could not claim that its right were breached in proceedings whose outcome could lead to criminal charges against third parties.

It would be a different matter if proceedings were intrinsically linked to a civil right for compensation for civil damages. 

Proceedings taken in the public interest are not considered as proceedings concerning a civil right. 

In light of such considerations, the court upheld the state advocate’s plea that Repubblika lacked juridical interest and victim status to pursue this breach of rights claim. 

It also upheld another plea whereby the state advocate argued that Repubblika was not charged with any crime and nor were its civil rights disputed. 

The court turned down Repubblika’s claims with costs. 

Lawyers James D’Agostino and Isaac Zammit represented the state advocate. Lawyer Jason Azzopardi assisted Repubblika. 

We will take necessary action to acquire justice - Repubblika

Repubblika president Robert Aquilina said the group is studying the judgement and will be taking all the necessary steps to acquire justice.

He noted that Repubblika only lost the case to a technical point as, according to Maltese law, civil society did not have the right to expect a fair hearing.

This legal problem, he said, will not stop the NGO. It was just one of many problems it has had to face in the past five years.

"As she has already shown in several instances, Lia cannot give us a fair hearing in the case," Aquilina insisted.

Repubblika, he said, will not allow a legal problem to stop it from ridding the country of corruption and abuse.

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