Judge Aaron Bugeja has abstained from presiding over the forthcoming trial of Yorgen Fenech, who stands accused of complicity in the murder Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The decision was announced in a decree issued on Wednesday morning, soon after a bill of indictment sending Fenech to trial was filed by the attorney general's office.
Bugeja was assigned the case as the judge on roster duty on Wednesday.
In his abstention decree, he noted that he had presided over a complex inquiry in which he had clearly expressed himself on matters that are directly linked to the accused's defence.
As a magistrate, Bugeja had led a lengthy inquiry into the once-secret offshore company Egrant.
Caruana Galizia had alleged that the wife of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s wife, Michelle, was the company's owner and had received a $1 million payment from the Azerbaijani ruling family.
Ultimately, Bugeja’s 1,500 page magisterial inquiry found no evidence linking the Muscat family to the Egrant company.
Bugeja had already abstained from presiding over the trial of the Degiorgio brothers Alfred and George, who stand accused of carrying out the Caruana Galizia assassination.
Why can a judge abstain?
The reasons which may lead to a judge’s abstention from a case are laid out in the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure, which governs court proceedings.
A judge may be challenged or may abstain from sitting in a case if he/she is related to any of the parties.
The law also allows for a challenge or abstention if the judge had given advice, pleaded or written on the case or on any other matter connected to the matter at hand.
There can also be a challenge or abstention if the judge, or spouse of a judge, has a case pending against any of the parties to the suit or if the judge happens to be a creditor or debtor in such a manner that the situation may reasonably give rise to a suspicion of a direct or indirect interest that may influence the outcome of the case.
Finally, a judge may be challenged or abstain from sitting in a cause when they have previously taken cognizance of and expressed themselves on the merits of the case.