A judge has revoked a decision for a magisterial inquiry into the government's transfer of three hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare after he observed that the magistrate had committed a procedural mistake. 

Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti said the magistrate misinterpreted the law when she ruled over the level of evidence needed for her to uphold the request for a magisterial inquiry. 

He was ruling on an appeal by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and Economy Minister Chris Cardona over Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit’s decision to order a magisterial inquiry into the transfer of St Luke's, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals.

The request had originally been made by civil society group Repubblika in a 150-page application in May. The activists had described the ministers as key facilitators in the “coordinated” act of modern-day “piracy”.

The group wanted a magisterial inquiry to establish if there was criminal complicity by the three ministers and Ivan Vassallo, owner of a medical supplies firm, in the transfer of the hospitals.

The ministers argued that the allegations were speculative in nature and made in bad faith by politically-motivated individuals. Mr Vassallo did not appeal the decision.   

But Mr Justice Grixti disagreed with the magistrate’s conclusion, which he said was based on a wrong premise and was also against the spirit of the law.

He said the magistrate had based her decision on information brought forward by Repubblika which was, in turn, based on a “collection of opinions by journalists and bloggers who chose to join forces to expose as fact that the four suspects had devised a plan to award the hospitals’ contract to VGH, in order to benefit those involved in the deal”.

“This is why the law had to be followed closely and not practically exempt the person filing the complaint from a crucial element for the filing of a complaint and then reach its decision without such an indispensable element,” Mr Justice Grixti ruled in his decision quashing the magistrate’s July ruling.

The magistrate had ruled that the evidence presented was sufficient to justify the request for an inquiry to establish whether crimes had been committed and to collect evidence in these cases.

But Mr Justice Grixti disagreed with this decision, “especially because the crux of the allegations rely almost entirely on unidentified sources”. 

“It is not this court’s job, and neither was it that of the magistrate, to examine this evidence from the point of view of those who have to finally decide in eventual criminal proceedings. However, the court still has to examine the exhibited documents to see whether these merited to be preserved,” the judge said. 

He added that there was “absolutely no form of control” on conclusions of journalists and bloggers so the first court was duty-bound to ensure that the requisites laid down at law are respected. He ruled that starting an inquiry on the basis of articles and blogs breached the principle that everyone was innocent until proven guilty.

He, therefore, revoked the magistrate’s decision due to “lack of observance of the provisions of the law” that regulate the request for a magisterial inquiry. 

In an earlier part of the decision, Mr Justice Grixti criticised Repubblika for the level of detail in their request, with quotes from the laws of Malta and also quotes from case law. This, he said, “could be counterproductive, with an application taking the form of a bill of indictment”. 

Legal sources said that, in such cases, a decision by the Court of Criminal Appeal was not subject to any review and could not be appealed. However, a magisterial inquiry would still look into allegations of wrongdoing by Mr Vassallo who had not appealed the magistrate’s decision. 

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