Justice Minister Jonathan Attard has refused to quantify the damages the government is expecting Steward Healthcare to fork out over the 'fraudulent' hospitals' deal. 

He also skirted questions on whether the government had taken any specific action - such as through an injunction - to freeze the amount it was claiming to be owed by Steward. 

Attard was addressing a press conference to announce that Cabinet will be asking the court to allow it to intervene in a case filed by the Opposition against the State Advocate over alleged inaction in recovering funds from the deal.

Opposition Leader Bernard Grech and Nationalist MP Adrian Delia last year asked the court to order the State Advocate to take action against “present and past government officials involved in the [hospitals privatisation] deal”. 

They followed up that request by calling upon the court to handle the case with urgency since the subject matter was of national interest.

After considering the Opposition’s request and the State Advocate’s objections, the Court concluded that it did not sense the need for urgency as claimed by the applicants.

Although it turned down the Opposition's request for the case to be heard with urgency, it observed that the lawsuit deserved priority.

The first hearing will be held on Monday before Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti, nearly a year after a court annulled the privatisation deal for the running of St Luke’s, Karin Grech and the Gozo General hospitals.

That judgment, in February 2023, called the contract "fraudulent". 

In October, the Court of Appeal confirmed the judgement and upheld the cancellation of the contracts, on the basis that Steward had also failed to deliver on their promises and concluded that the entire deal appeared to be fraudulent. 

The appeals court also said that it believed there was “collusion” between Steward and senior government officials and that the government had failed to protect the national interest in upholding the deal. 

The concession for the running of the three hospitals was initially given to Vitals Global Healthcare but was in 2018 taken over by Steward Healthcare after this bought a majority stake in Vitals.

On Thursday Attard said the Cabinet had decided to intervene in the case to defend the national interest. The government is requesting to be a party in the case.

Attard insisted that the case filed by the Opposition was "dangerous" because it undermined the international arbitration that the government had filed against Steward. 

'Opposition's case was actually helping Steward'

In a judicial reply filed on Wednesday, State Advocate Chris Soler described the Opposition's case as “purely political" and one that was contradictory and superfluous. 

He said Grech and Delia's requests were contradictory because they first argued the State Advocate could act independently but then asked the court to order the office to take legal action.

The State Advocate rubbished the assertion that the law empowered him to act of his own accord, adding that the opposition was asking the court to “usurp” the duties of the executive and grant the State Advocate powers he did not have at law.

Soler said the government, with the help of the State Advocate and other private lawyers, was defending its interests in arbitration proceedings underway in the International Chamber of Commerce.

The filing of the court case does not help the government’s case and can undermine and prejudice the Maltese State in the arbitration proceedings, he said.

His argument was repeated by Attard on Thursday, who added that the Opposition's case was actually "helping Steward".

"This is a dangerous case because it is a direct attack on the country's democracy... the Cabinet will ask to intervene in the case specifically to defend the national interest," he said. 

Attard said the case was "disloyal" because it ignored the separation of powers. 

The Opposition was also trying to dictate what action must be taken against Steward, he said. It is frivolous and politically motivated, he added.

Attard said the government was holding the Opposition responsible for any damages that could be suffered as a result of the case. 

Addressing the same conference, PL whip Andy Ellul said the case was a "political manoeuvre" aimed at undermining the government and its international arbitration case. This, he said, was "despicable".

'Government has made counterclaim'

Asked how much it was expecting Steward to fork out in damages, Attard would only say that the government had made a counterclaim but would not disclose the amount due to confidentiality. 

Asked if the government made a seizure of assets pending the outcome of the case, Attard did not reply directly but just assured that the government had taken "all the required action to safeguard its claim". 

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