Updated 4.12pm with call for resignation
Repubblika activists have won a legal battle to have magistrate Nadine Lia removed from a court case concerning top Pilatus Bank officials.
In a legal first, a constitutional court ruled that the case should be assigned to a different magistrate, noting that Lia's refusal to step aside in the case differed from her behaviour on previous occasions.
Repubblika president Robert Aquilina described the decision as a "historic" one, saying it was the first time that a court had forced a magistrate off a case since that right had been introduced into national law.
He later called for her to resign.
A "fair-minded and informed observer" could reasonably ask why the magistrate chose to act differently in this case, the court ruled as it ordered the case to be reassigned.
Repubblika had sought Lia's recusal because her father-in-law, lawyer Pawlu Lia, represents key figures who have been embroiled in the Pilatus Bank scandal.
Lia is the personal lawyer of former prime minister Joseph Muscat as well as the Labour Party's legal counsel, among others. He was also the lawyer who set the terms of reference for the Egrant inquiry, which heavily implicated Pilatus Bank.
The court case that Lia was presiding over seeks to have top Pilatus Bank officials criminally charged, with Repubblika noting that a magisterial inquiry had instructed police to press charges against five key officials.
Repubblika argued that the magistrate's familial ties presented a clear conflict of interest in this case, as anything that damaged Pilatus Bank or exposed its workings risked causing harm to her father-in-law's clients.
The magistrate had however turned down repeated requests to recuse herself, prompting the NGO to file constitutional proceedings.
Repubblika: A 'historic win'
Speaking outside the courts on Wednesday, Repubblika president Robert Aquilina described the decision as a "historic win".
"Since the day the right to remove a magistrate was introduced, this was the first time this has happened," Aquilina said.
Lia had also assumed a "hostile" attitude towards the NGO, Aquilina said.
Aquilina told the media: "We have been vindicated. We were told we are right and that our rights were being breached by Nadine Lia. I appeal to those of good will: realise that we are making great strides. Our versions are being believed.
"I appeal to the people to express themselves. We are convinced that we will make it, and with people’s help, we will make it sooner.
"We will do whatever it takes to reach our aims," he said.
What the court ruled
Lia had, on four previous occasions, opted to recuse herself from cases for similar reasons to those postulated in this case, to ensure there was no perception of bias. She did not do so on this occasion, the court noted.
Citing British case law, the court made it clear that “in any case there is real ground for doubt, that doubt should be resolved in favour of recusal”.
Repubblika had sufficiently proven that it had such grounds, the court said, and while there was no evidence that the NGO’s rights to a fair hearing had been breached, its concerns about bias were “real and founded” given the circumstances.
The court also delved into a dispute between the NGO and magistrate over the latter’s alleged misstating of proceedings in one hearing.
Lia had stated that Repubblika representatives had failed to show up for a sitting and also claimed that she had never turned down a request to file a note in court proceedings.
Repubblika had vehemently denied both those things and filed an ethics complaint against the magistrate, alleging she had misstated proceedings. Media reports of the sitting appeared to lend credence to the NGO’s version of events.
In its judgement on Wednesday, the court, presided by judge Ian Spiteri Bailey, said that this dispute also raised “serious doubts” about the serenity of proceedings and further bolstered Repubblika’s argument for the case to be reassigned to a different magistrate.
Lia, it concluded, should have agreed to recuse herself on the second or third time that Repubblika had requested it.
“Certainly that would have provided far more certainty about justice being seen to be done,” it said.
In a Facebook post later, Aquilina said she had broken the trust given to her.
"Magistrate Lia has no other honorable way left but to resign," he said.
Lawyer Jason Azzopardi assisted Repubblika.