The Justice Ministry has described as “insensitive” the decision by a lawyer in the Attorney General’s office to switch sides and join the defence team of alleged Daphne Caruana Galizia murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech.
In a statement, the ministry said it was disappointed to learn that lawyer Charles Mercieca had quit the AG’s office to join Fenech’s defence team.
It said that following thorough verifications conducted with the Office of the Attorney General, the ministry was informed that Mercieca never worked directly or indirectly on the proceedings related to the Caruana Galizia assassination nor on any proceedings connected to Yorgen Fenech.
Fenech, who stands charged with conspiring to have the late Caruana Galizia assassinated in a 2017 car bomb, is being defended by Gianluca Caruana Curran, an associate in the De Marco law firm and Marion Camilleri, an associate in the Franco Debono law firm.
“The decision taken by the said advocate to assume the patronage of Mr Fenech at this early moment is insensitive,” the ministry said, adding that it expected “more prudence and caution”, both from the advocate and the legal firm in question.
The ministry said it was committed to move ahead with the implementation of the required reforms to further strengthen the country’s democratic institutions.
Reacting to the news, the Caruana Galizia family called on the Attorney General's office to launch an internal inquiry to establish whether Mercieca had access to sensitive information related to Fenech's murder case.
"Even though Mercieca says he didn't work on the case, there is absolutely no guarantee that he didn't access any of the documents or files related to the prosecution’s case [against Fenech],” Matthew Caruana Galizia told Times of Malta.
"There will always be a doubt," he added.
Meanwhile, Council of Europe rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt also expressed his frustration at the news.
In a tweet, he said he had seen "a disturbing development" in the Caruana Galizia murder case.
"The Maltese authorities must immediately ensure that this potential breach of professional ethics cannot violate the integrity of the investigation."
The OSCE's Representative of Freedom of the Media head also tweeted about the latest development.
Opposition spokesman calls for criminal investigation
Justice Opposition spokesman Jason Azzopardi has called for a criminal investigation into the possibility of a criminal offence allegedly committed by the lawyer while he was working at the AG's office.
"This is not only about insensitivity or a breach of professional ethics. It is much more than that. So much so that you are not denying, and cannot deny, that he had access to the sensitive files in connection with Daphne's assassination and related corruption investigations.
"You cannot even deny that he spoke with those that did. You cannot deny that the contact between this lawyer and Yorgen Fenech took place during the former's tenure at the AG's office. Art. 122 of the Criminal Code beckons," he said, referring to the article that deals with prevarication by an advocate or legal procurator.
The article in question states that any advocate or legal procurator who, after having already commenced to act on behalf of one party switches to the opposite party without consent shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine, and to temporary interdiction from the exercise of his profession for a term from four months to one year.
Chamber of advocates assessing facts
Chamber of Advocates President Louis de Gabriele told Times of Malta there was nothing unprecedented about having a lawyer move from the Attorney General's office to private practice.
He said there were various cases where this had happened in the past and there was nothing inherently untoward in that move.
"Whether there is a prima facie breach of the code of ethics depends on a number of factors, most notably whether the lawyer concerned had any information which was relevant to the case in question."
de Gabriele noted that media reports indicated Mercieca was not working on the Fenech prosecution. However, the Chamber would be writing to the Attorney General to assess the matter.
He said any further statement at this stage would be premature.