A court on Wednesday slashed 10 days off the timeframe to appeal a ruling that annulled contracts which handed three state hospitals to private investors.
Steward Health Care now have 20 days, rather than the usual 30, to appeal the landmark ruling passed last week by Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale.
The request to shorten the appeal’s timeframe was filed by the government and announced by Prime Minister Robert Abela, who also said that the government would be asking the court to hear any eventual appeal with urgency.
On Wednesday, the First Hall, Civil Court, presided by Judge Miriam Hayman upheld the government’s request to reduce the appeals time window.
Friday’s landmark judgement found that there was evidence of fraud at all stages of the concession deal that handed St Luke’s, Karin Grech and Gozo General hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare, which then sold its concession to Steward.
The court struck off all contracts relating to the deal as well as any amendments and additions made to them.
Steward Health Care responded by saying it considered allegations of wrongdoing as “outrageous and without merit” and intended to “pursue action” to contest them.
It accused the court of going beyond its remit and said the ruling would have “serious implications for the future of foreign investment in the country”.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the court heard from State Advocate Chris Soler as well as a legal representative of Steward.
Soler told the court that the government wanted to shorten the 30-day window due to the public interest of the matter under scrutiny.
"We are currently in a legal limbo, " said Soler, as he noted that questions remain about whether Steward and Vitals were owed any money by the state.
"Pending these proceedings, even as we speak, there may possibly be running claims for payment and others in the future,” the State Advocate said.
Steward argued that, rather than public interest and uncertainty, the government’s request stemmed from political and media pressure.
“Last Friday, the ink on the judgment was barely dry when the government issued a statement that it would be requesting shortening of the appeal time limit,” lawyer Joseph Camilleri argued.
He said Steward needed time to prepare its eventual appeal.
The case had taken five years to decide and the court had even postponed the date when it was due to deliver judgement, because it needed more time.
So shouldn't Steward now have the full time limit to produce an appeal, the company’s lawyer reasoned.
Judge Hayman suspended the hearing to deliberate on the request. When she returned, her decree upheld the government’s request and shortened the period of appeal to 20 days – the same amount of time given to file appeal judgements before recent amendments extended that to 30.
While such a shortening was an exceptional procedure, the law granted discretion to the court, the court said, as it acknowledged the public interest inherent to the case.
While Friday’s judgement was voluminous, as Steward argued, the court said it was sure that most of the contested points had already been discussed.
Lawyers Nicholas Debono and Daniel Buttigieg represented PN MP Adrian Delia, who filed the case.
The government was represented by State Advocate Chris Soler. Steward was defended by lawyer Joseph Camilleri. Other defendants were represented by lawyers Stefano Filletti and John Bonello.