A magisterial inquiry into the Vitals hospitals deal cost over €10 million, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard said on Saturday. 

He said the hefty price tag shows that the government provides all the resources necessary to the judiciary. 

“They say the judiciary doesn’t have resources, but this inquiry cost more than €10 million,” Attard said. 

Attard said that he would like to see the method by which court experts are appointed reformed. Currently, those appointments are entirely at the discretion of the inquiring magistrate. 

“In a situation like this everyone appoints experts at their discretion, but at the end it is the people who are paying for it," Attard said.

Similar inquiries in the recent past have also cost millions. An inquiry into Pilatus Bank cost €7.5 million, and the Egrant inquiry cost €1.25 million in forensic services alone.

The Vitals inquiry, which was concluded last week but remains under wraps, was tasked with seeing whether top government ministers had committed any crimes in relation to the deal to lease three state hospitals to a private company. 

That privatisation deal, which cost taxpayers an estimated €400 million, was struck off by a court last year. The court ruled that the deal was tainted by fraud, that contractual obligations had not been honoured and that top officials had colluded against the national interest. 

Justice minister Attard provided the €10 million figure during an interview on RTK 103 Radio with show host Andrew Azzopardi. He did not provide any further detail about that cost. 

Attard also defended Prime Minister Robert Abela's criticism of the magistrate leading the inquiry, saying it was the government’s duty to speak out when trust in the judiciary was at risk.

Like Abela, the minister questioned the timing of the inquiry. Abela has said it is no coincidence that the probe was concluded just as nominations for MEP electoral candidates opened.   

“In every situation that somehow impacts trust (in the judiciary), we have a responsibility to comment. This is not an attack on the judiciary,” Attard said on Andrew Azzopardi's RTK 103 Radio programme. 

He noted that the Abela-led government had introduced reforms that granted the judiciary more independence, and said that more new magistrates have been appointed in the past few years than in the three previous legislatures combined. 

Attard said that while he could understand why the magistrate could not conclude her work within the 60-day time limit set by law, he could not understand why she needed four-and-a-half years to conclude it.

The probe was triggered in late 2019 following a complaint filed by NGO Repubblika. The Vitals deal itself was annulled last year after a court upheld a case alleging fraud which was filed by then-Opposition leader Adrian Delia. 

Karol Aquilina: 'Ridiculous' to link timing to election 

The Opposition has accused Abela of trying to leverage the inquiry for political gain, turning Labour supporters against the magistrate in question. 

Opposition leader Bernard Grech even wrote to the police commissioner asking that inquiring magistrate Gabriella Vella be given police protection.

Shadow justice minister Karol Aquilina also spoke on the Saturday morning radio show.

Aquilina said it was "ridiculous" to question the inquiry's timing. 

“Justice shouldn’t stop from happening because of an electoral campaign, it should happen whatever the circumstances," Aquilina said. “The fact that the prime minister is accusing the magistrate of having electoral timing in mind is ridiculous."

Aquilina said magistrates and judges who had previously been politicians have all proven to be competent and respected members of the judiciary. 

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