In reply to Chief Justice Emeritus Vincent De Gaetano: resorting to nitpicking is a sign of weakness

Entering the on-going fray regarding Magistrate Joe Mifsud, on Tuesday July 6, we had a distinguished Chief Justice Emeritus who chose to attack mercilessly the Magistrate in a letter to the Times of Malta. De Gaetano’s letter was also picked up by Lovin Malta. Lovin Malta went a step further reporting that in his letter, De Gaetano accused Magistrate Mifsud of misquoting his judgement related to the case of the Police versus Maurice Agius. In truth, as I had the opportunity to write in previous blogs, this is not a case of Magistrate Mifsud misquoting a sentence by Chief Justice De Gaetano.

In reality, Chief Justice De Gaetano picks on two magistrates. One is named and this is Joe Mifsud, the other is not but since the Judge refers to certain decrees it was easy to trace the second magistrate; Dr Simone Grech. But the media chooses to focus on Joe Mifsud’s judgement.

What is surprising is that from the contents of his long letter, the Judge Emeritus is all out for his pound of flesh. De Gaetano further declares Mifsud’s judgement a controversial judgement. It is only a controversial judgement as long as others attempt to show off their cleverness when, in reality, they are merely overtly declaring their bias towards a fellow member of the bar.  To quote an ad hoc phrase for which Sir Frederick Lawton former Lord Justice of Appeal in England – now deceased – remains famous for:like a true traditionalist”, it is my duty to apply the law, not to reform it.” Is this not what  Joe Mifsud is doing, applying the law?  

The judge purports that he does not know the meaning of contracettazione (whatever that means)”. This is surprising indeed for, as we all know, until 1933 the language used in Malta’s Law Courts was Italian. If the honourable judge is querying what it means, how then can he maintain that it has been misused? A basic search engine would immediately clarify that contro accettazione is in fact a legal Italian term just as much as contrettazione and contractio; this last coming from the Latin but all three terms – give and take – are virtually as old as the hills of Rome! Incidentally contracettazione now has  the Maltese equivalent in kontracettazzjoni which is being used in our court decrees! Finally, meaning of words in a language change according to the usage that people make of those same words. As the great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had explained, the linguistic sign – that is the way how a word is written – is totally arbitrary.

As for the errors De Gaetano mentions, is it possible that the honourable judge cannot concede that this is clearly a lapsus, or a typo error and not an attempt to misquote or distort justice?

If the former Chief Justice feels so sorely miffed by these two magistrates, he should look even closer. He would find that we have a few other magistrates who are actually way out of their depth which is not the case of the two magistrates he attacks. Yet, for reasons best known to him, he ignores this more serious aspect our country is facing. A problem far more serious than a misquote or lapsus that only hurts someone’s pride.   

The truth is that active magistrates and judges cannot reply to accusations that are carried in the media. And former chief justice knows this very well which makes his letter criticizing a sitting magistrate/s not only unfair  but unwarranted for a man in his former position as Chief Justice of Malta. This is not a question of freedom of expression but a question of being completely out of order and caddish the more so when it is known that the Magistrates have not got the right of reply!  

Incidentally, it should be noted that today, Vincent De Gaetano is the Ombudsman for Education. When the previous ombudsman passed a controversial comment on Facebook, there was a whole backlash against him.   The truth is that an ombudsman can write in the press but a magistrate cannot reply or defend himself. One would have expected the media to have questioned such an anomaly.

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