When Labour Leader Robert Abela addressed the party faithful at the Birkirkara Labour Party Club last Sunday, he was right to complain that the sentencing policy currently applied by the judiciary may at times appear as being too lenient. However, as Prime Minister he had other fora through which to convey his preoccupation and to emphasise the need of an up-to-date sentencing policy.
He could have drawn the attention of the President of the Republic in order that he may refer the matter for the consideration of the Commission for the Administration of Justice. He could have legitimately brought up the matter in a formal meeting with the Chief Justice. He could also legislate in order to restrict the current flexibility which the Courts have when applying the law. In fact, he has at his disposal various tools to bring about the change he spoke about: pontificating at the Birkirkara Labour Party Club through a Sunday political sermon is not one of these tools.
At Birkirkara Robert Abela also spoke on the conflict of interest which Members of Parliament who are practising criminal lawyers are continuously exposed to. They ably defend their clients during the morning in Court pleading in favour of minimal sentencing, including the application of suspended sentences. Then, in the afternoon, emphasised Robert Abela, in Parliament, these same Members of Parliament vociferously argue on the dangers of an increasing criminality.
He is definitely right on that. But this line of reasoning does not only apply to criminal lawyers. It is also applicable to MPs who are civil and commercial lawyers as well as to other professionals in their specific area of practice. We have been exposed to this over the years in a number of cases. Is it not about time that parliament is made up of full-timers? No Member of Parliament should carry out any other work (paid or unpaid) except that resulting from his/her parliamentary duties. My party has been emphasising this for a considerable number of years. We believe that it is the only way to effectively address the obvious conflict of interest which abounds in Parliament.
Robert Abela said more. He referred to a tete-a-tete with a sitting Magistrate with whom he discussed the lenient sentencing which the Criminal Law Courts are applying. The Magistrate, said Abela, defensively replied that it is all the fault of the appeals court as they consider themselves bound by precedent when they revise the decisions delivered by the inferior courts, ending up in lighter sentences.
Robert Abela was wrong when he conveyed his views directly to one of the Magistrates currently sitting in judgement at the inferior Courts. Bragging about it in public makes it even worse as it conveys the wrong message that the judiciary is at the beck and call of the Executive. This, in plain language, threatens the independence of the judiciary. As a lawyer, Robert Abela is undoubtedly aware that he has gone far beyond the red line.
In any other democratic country where rule of law is fact, not fiction, Robert Abela would have resigned within a couple of hours after having publicly admitting pressuring a sitting Magistrate. Similarly, the Magistrate who allowed the discussion to proceed would by now have been identified and disciplined.
But, as you are aware, nothing has happened yet.
On Monday in a press statement, I have called on the President of the Republic to convene an urgent meeting of the Commission for the Administration of Justice to take the necessary and required action. So far there has been no reaction whatsoever. Possibly his Excellency the President is currently abroad, or, maybe he is extremely busy with some activity promoting the citrous products of the presidential kitchen garden at the San Anton Presidential Palace!
As things stand banana week would definitely be a future activity in the Presidential agenda: this takes priority over the independence of the judiciary, in this Banana Republic!
published in the Malta Independent on Sunday: 5 February 2023