Examining Dr Robert Musumeci’s Blog Post titled: ‘My Insights In Response To The PN Bill On Judicial Review’

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  1. Introduction

Maltese legal literature is characterised by monographs. Seldom is the legal community exposed to diverging legal opinions on an academic level, attesting to what Judge Giovanni Bonello calls a ‘black cultural hole’ in Maltese legal literature [1].  

In this vein, this author shall proceed to reply to Dr Musumeci [2]. This writing may not satisfy all intellectual thinking, yet at a start, it pricks at the conventional armchair academia and fuels much-needed University debate.

2. Preliminary

It is crucial to respect students’ choices in aligning with political parties.

Notwithstanding my agreement with this sentiment, it is unclear and, humbly submitted, incorrect to assimilate GħSL’s bill as a partisan alignment. It is simply not the case. The bill was drafted by GħSL through the involvement of students, through a drafting session held at the Chamber of Advocates wherein advocates and politicians from both sides were invited to discuss a potential judicial review bill. 

Was GħSL aligned when it presented its Judicial Review bill to Cabinet, during a youth cabinet meeting?[3] To say that GħSL aligned with a party is to negate the efforts of the current and previous GħSL teams to lobby a judicial review bill as extensively as possible. The Opposition took the initial sip, as per a famous saying including horses and bodies of water.

This author is not stating that GħSL’s bill is not political, on the contrary; it is motivated on ideologies of curbing excessive executive discretion, at maintaining Government’s accountability to Courts of Law, and to reinforcing that only Courts decide what is lawful or not. These are political ideologies and are reflected in the bill. Yet for these political agendas alone, the bill is, from its inception, non-partisan. It is respectfully declared that these ideologies were never fully embraced by any political party. The draconian 1981 law and the difunctional 1995 law on judicial review is a testament to a political philosophy absent from Maltese party politics. So, it is true. The bill is rich in politics, but it is a complete alien to the parties which have ruled this island. 

3. Legal Issues:

Dr Musumeci’s first point of contention is the inclusion of pronouncements from tribunals as forming part of the definition of ‘judicial decision’, calling it a ‘non sequitur from the outset’. 

The bill defines ‘judicial act’ as: 

a pronouncement by any entity, tribunal, authority, or organ established by law which decides disputes brought before it, but also includes any entity on whose findings a public authority commences any kind of proceedings or action or where a public authority is bound by law to follow such decision and shall never include pronouncements by a court of law

Judicial (or quasi-judicial) decisions have long been subject to review [4]. The ground of natural justice and audi et alteram partem were exclusively applicable to the review of judicial decisions from which such grounds have stemmed. In the United Kingdom, the landmark Ridge v Baldwin [5] asserted that principles of natural justice applied also to administrative decision-making, and not just judicial acts, rendering the whole ‘administrative vs judicial decision’ saga a mere academic hobby. In Malta, notwithstanding the ground of natural justice within Article 469A, judicial bodies were in many cases excluded from review under Article 469A. For a period of time, our courts interpreted quasi-judicial decisions to include any form of decision which affected the individual’s rights [6], such as, for example, the famous Anthony Ellul Sullivan case [7].

In GħSL’s publication, it was suggested that prior to the enactment of Article 469A and the definition of ‘administrative acts’ thereunder, our judicial system, realising that these tribunals are administrative bodies and not part of the court system, regarded decisions made by statutory tribunals as ‘administrative acts’. Reference is made to Montalto vs Clews [8], wherein the Court, after reaffirming its general jurisdiction to review the legality of decisions by tribunals when there are no other suitable means of redress (a provision included in Clause 7 of the bill), referred to the decision of the industrial tribunal as ‘għemil amministrattiv’ [9]. 

The reality is that currently, the applicable law in challenging decisions of judicial authorities is questionable. Take for example the latest judgment on the judicial review of Boards and tribunals: Av. Malcolm Mifsud u Av. Cedric Mifsud vs Bord tas-Sorveljanza dwar Sanzjonijiet. The Court of Appeal considered: 

Ladarba l-Bord ta’ Sorveljanza dwar Sanzjonijiet jaqa’ fit-tieni kategorija ta’ korp magħqud imwaqqaf bil-liġi, allura m’hemmx għalfejn li wieħed jivverifika jekk dan il-Bord jaqax fit-tielet kategorija ta’ awtoritajiet pubbliċi […] Din il-Qorti għalhekk qiegħda ttenni l-fehma milħuqa mill-Ewwel Qorti illi l-Bord ta’ Sorveljanza dwar Sanzjonijiet għandu jitqies bħala awtorità pubblika għall-għanijiet tal-Artikolu 469A tal-Kodiċi ta’ Organizzazzjoni u Proċedura Ċivili, ladarba dan huwa korp maqgħud li ġie mwaqqaf b’liġi speċifika [10].

Compare that with the much presided over Pinu Axiaq judgment [11]: 

l-istħarriġ ġudizzjarju ta’ tribunali ġudizzjarji jew kwazi-ġudizzjarji, bħalma huwa t-Tribunal in kwistjoni, ma jistax isir in forza tal-Artikolu 469A tal-Kapitolu 12. L-Artikolu 469A(1) jipprovdi li l-qrati ta’ ġustizzja ta’ kompetenza ċivili, għandhom ġurisdizzjoni biex jistħarrgu l-validità ta’ xi għemil amministrattiv jew li jiddikjaraw dak l-għemil null, invalidu jew mingħajr effett fil-każijiet imsemmija fl-istess artikolu. Skont is-sub-artikolu (2) tal-imsemmi artikolu, il-frazi ‘għemil amministrattiv’ tfisser ‘il-ħruġ ta’ kull ordni, liċenzja, permess, warrant, deċiżjoni jew ir-rifjut għal talba ta’ xi persuna li jsir minn awtorità pubblika […]’. L-istess sub-artikolu jipprovdi li l-frażi ‘awtorità pubblika’ tfisser il-Gvern ta’ Malta, magħdudin il-Ministri u dipartimenti tiegħu, awtoritajiet lokali u kull korp magħqud kostitwit permezz ta’ liġi […]

Għalhekk jidher li l-Qrati Maltin irritenew illi s-setgħa tagħhom li jissindikaw deċiżjonijiet ta’ tribunali ġudizzjarji jew kważi ġudizzjarji, temani mill-ġurisdizzjoni ordinarja li l-liġi (Kodiċi ta’ Organizzazzjoni u Proċedura Ċivili – Kap. 12, Artikolu 32(2)) tikkonferixxi lill-Prim’Awla tal-Qorti Ċivili li tieħu konjizzjoni ta’ kawżi ta’ natura ċivili li ma jkunux jaqgħu fil-ġurisdizzjoni ta’ xi qorti oħra bis-saħħa ta’ xi liġi oħra […] Huwa veru li, kif osserva l-appellant, l-istħarriġ ġudizzjarju taħt l-Artikolu 469A tal-Kap. 12 u l-istħarriġ ġudizzjarju in forza tal-ġurisdizzjoni ġenerali konferita lill-Prim’Awla tal-Qorti Ċivili, jista’ fis-sustanża ikun fil-prattika simili jekk mhux identiku, billi fiż-żewġ każi l-eżerċizzju huwa dejjem dak li jara li l-għemil amministrattiv f’każ wieħed u l-pronunzjament tat-tribunali amministrattivi fil-każ l-ieħor jkunu fil-parametri tal-liġi. Però dan ma jnaqqas xejn mill-fatt illi l-Kap. 12 jikkonferixxi din is-setgħa lill-Prim’Awla taħt żewġ dispożizzjonijiet separati.

The bill is designed to eliminate this medley of avenues of review through codifying the judicial review of judicial authorities under one law. The Court of Appeal, being the highest court in Malta right after the Constitutional Court, has historically accepted review under both Article 32(2) and Article 469A; so why should a claimant be punished for choosing between two modes of review? The current legal scenario fails to endow legal certainty to an action which is intended to protect the legality of the administration.

Dr Musumeci’s second point is as follows: 

The notion of including ‘body corporates which perform a public function’ raises questions. Are we implying that, say, private schools, which provide educational services to the public, would fall within this new scope? The ambiguity in this aspect requires clarification to ensure a precise and appropriate delineation of entities affected by the proposed provision.

The bill defines ‘public authority’ as:

‘public authority’ means the Government, including its Ministries and departments, local authorities, the Armed Forces of Malta, and any body corporate established by law, including Boards which are empowered in terms of law to issue warrants for the exercise of any trade or profession, and any body corporate which performs a public function, or one whose functions are such that the State would have to intervene if such body corporate did not exist or did not provide its services;

The definition of public authority is extending the scope of review through the application of two tests: the ‘public functions test’ or a ‘but for test’.

The ‘public functions test’ is inspired by UK common law. The leading case is R v Panel on Take-Overs and Mergers, in which Lord Lloyd held that:

I do not agree that the source of the power is the sole test whether a body is subject to judicial review […] Of course the source of the power will often, perhaps usually, be decisive. If the source of power is a statute, or subordinate legislation under a statute, then clearly the body in question will be subject to judicial review […] But in between these extremes there is an area in which it is helpful to look not just at the source of the power but at the nature of the power. If the body in question is exercising public law functions, or if the exercise of its functions have public law consequences, then that may […] be sufficient to bring the body within the reach of judicial review. [12]

This reasoning is not completely alien within our judicial review jurisprudence. For example, in the Kaptan Mario Grech case, wherein the Gozo Channel Company Limited was subjected to judicial review, the Court justified the review of a company: 

il-fatt li l-Gvern ikun għażel li jopera permezz ta’ kumpanija u mhux korp kostitwit b’liġi ma għandux ifisser li b’daqshekk dik il-kumpanija li tkun qiegħda taqdi funzjoni pubblika m’għandhiex tkun soġġetta għal stħarriġ taħt l-Artikolu 469A tal-Kap. 12 fejn twettaq ‘għemil amministrattiv’ [13].    

‘[P]ublic functions’ in the bill has to be read ejusdem generis. Judicial review of private entities, given the spirit of the bill, intends to remain as an exception. The broadness of the term is not a drafting error. Reference is made to Lord Dyson’s assertion in the case of Hampshire County Council v Graham Beer:

It may be said with some justification that this criterion for amenability is very broad, not to say question-begging. But it provides the framework for the investigation that has to be conducted [14].

In a House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights report [15], it was criticised that a private entity, as per the interpretation of ‘public functions’, could only be considered as a public authority if:

  • Its structures and work are closely linked with the delegating or contracting out state body; or
  • It is exercising powers of a public nature directly assigned to it by statute; or
  • It is exercising coercive powers devolved from the State.

The criticism was levied at scenarios wherein public authorities outsourced their obligations to private entities, such as, for example, local councils which delegated the task of providing for elderly accommodation to private nursing homes. These nursing homes were excluded from the scope of review given that notwithstanding the delegation, they themselves did not perform a public (governmental) function [16].

In response to Dr Musumeci’s concerns, it is, in the author’s view, certain that entities such as private schools, charitable organisations engaged in delivering a ‘public service’, or voluntary organisations providing services to the public do not fall under the categorisation of public authority ipso jure. The understanding of the term ‘public’ must be nuanced in the spirit of judicial review as expressed in the preamble and in the entirety of the bill, and thus it becomes amply clear that ‘public’ here means a public law function involving administration and governance. The term ‘public function’ is ambiguous when read on its own; within the context of the bill, it serves to protect the private citizen from an ever-growing branch of administrative decisions remaining unchecked.

In his third point, Dr Musumeci mentions that as subsidiary legislation is successfully challenged through Article 116 of the Constitution, and sometimes through Article 32(2) of the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure (COCP), then no effective or new change will be brought forward by the bill. It is true. The bill is not innovating in the realm of judicial review of delegated legislation, but simply codifying. Article 32(2) COCP and Article 116 of the Constitution do not specify the grounds of review of delegated legislation, unlike the bill which provides in Clause 4(2) that:

A legislative act may be reviewed when it was performed ultra vires the parent Act or other instrument having the force of law authorising it, or is in conflict with any Act of Parliament, or was not in conformity with the mandatory procedural requirements established by law, or when it constitutes an unreasonable, or improper exercise of power in consideration of the purpose of the parent Act.

However, this author is of the opinion that a state of affairs wherein the individual is faced with another choice of law, be it the actio popularis (used traditionally to escape the dictates of the Draconian 1981 Law) or Article 32(2) as the general competence of the Civil Court, is not a desirable one. Apart from being fragmented, the distinction between delegated legislation and other forms of administrative acts may at times be unclear. In fact, HWR Wade states that:

There is only a hazy borderline between legislation [Wade is here referring to delegated legislation] and administration, and the assumption that they are two fundamentally different forms of power is misleading. There are some obvious general differences. But the idea that a clean division can be made (as it can be more readily in judicial power) is a legacy from an old era of political theory [17].

The author thus believes that this is sufficient justification for the codification of judicial review of legislative acts. 

Dr Musumeci also questions why the Bill does not include Article 469A’s ground of constitutionality, apart from the reasons specified by the Christopher Hall judgment [18]. However, the Christopher Hall judgment is one apple within the basket. Take for example the Mark Calleja case [19], decided last year by the Constitutional Court, which highlighted the confusion brought about by the duplicity of actions:

Il-Qorti tqis illi dan l-istat ta’ inċertezza, li ċertament mhux maħluq minn xi azzjoni da parti tar-rikorrent, għal finijiet ta’ din l-eċċezzjoni hawnhekk diskussa u deċiża [Exhaustion of ordinary remedies], tista’ biss timmilita a favur ir-rikorrent u kontra l-akkoljiment tal-istess eċċezzjoni mressqa mill-intimati.

Another is Godfrey Scicluna vs Prim Ministru et [20]:

azzjoni għal stħarriġ ġudizzjarju taħt l-Artikolu 469A (bħalma nbdiet din il-kawża) ma għandhiex tieħu l-post u lanqas titqies bħallikieku kienet azzjoni kostituzzjonali (jew konvenzjonali)

In Emanuel Ciantar vs Kummissarju tal-Pulizija [21], the Constitutional Court asserted that:

Il-prinċipju kellu dejjem ikun illi l-kompetenza kostituzzjonali u l-kompetenza ċivili kellhom jibqgħu separati u distinti anke għaliex ir-rikors taħt kull kompetenza hu regolat bi proċeduriappositi b’finalità ta’ rimedju mhux dejjem identiku […] Eventwalment u fortunatament wara kontestazzjoni, il-leġislatur ġie konvint jelimina dan il-perjodu preskrittiv in kwantu japplika għal għemil amministrattiv li jikser il-Kostituzzjoni u dana bl-Att IV ta’ l-1998 […] L-emenda però bl-ebda mod ma ċċarat il-konflitt apparenti bejn il-kompetenza ċivili u l-kompetenza kostituzzjonali.

Thus, this author opines that not only is the constitutionality ground in Article 469A inoperable, but also an extra constitutional hurdle for victims of Human Rights violations, who will have to respond and wait for the court to decide an ‘other remedies’ plea.

Finally, this author will discuss Dr Musumeci’s comments on Clause 5 of the bill which provides for the judicial review of decisions of the Attorney General (AG) in granting nolle prosequi and in providing or allowing access of a procès-verbal. The judicial review of the AG in these decisions is currently regulated by Article 469B COCP after a 2020 amendment to implement the Victim’s Rights Directive [22]. Currently, Article 469B limits judicial review of the AG to the ‘injured party’. Although the term ‘injured party’ is not defined in our Criminal Code, it has been jurisprudentially equated to the passive subject of the offence [23]:

 Il soggetto passivo, pertanto, può definirsi: il titolare dell’interesse la cui offesa costituisce l’essenza del reato [24].

So, who, in crimes against the administration of justice, or in crimes of money laundering, can show that he is the holder of the interest whose offence constitutes the essence of the crime? In such offences the soggetto passivo is only the State, and thus this creates a lacuna wherein if the AG fails to prosecute such crimes, no one will have the standing to challenge. Moreover, when an offence affects a whole community, such as, for example, offences of an anti-social nature within a neighbourhood, the community victims have no remedy.

Dr Musumeci highlights that:

concerns may arise about its impact on the overall fairness and efficiency of criminal processes

This author fails to understand how civil proceedings (as is judicial review) would affect the efficiency of criminal proceedings. How would challenging a nolle prosequi or the access to the procès-verbal halt the criminal process? The AG has discretion to produce parts of the procès-verbal which concern the victim and may exclude access to certain aspects of the procès-verbal which may prejudice the criminal trial, yet access shall not hinder the exhibition of such documents in the trial of the cause.

4. Conclusion:

A law is presumed to have been deeply analysed at all stages leading to its promulgation. We have seen laws which were redacted or completely overhauled within a short period of time [25]. This process of academic debate is essential to ensure a functional law predicated on clear and well thought of ideologies. 

The Judicial Review Bill, tabled in Parliament on the 20th of November 2023 [26] does not pretend to solve the vast and complex array of issues in Maltese Administrative Law. That project requires a strong political will and a team of full-time specialists. It will certainly not be concluded in a year. The Judicial Review Bill seeks to resolve the specific issues with regard to judicial review. An invitation is extended to engage in a discussion on the several other impasses Maltese public law is facing. 

[1] Vide David Chetcuti Dimech, ‘Opening Address’ [2022] 32 Id-Dritt, 10.
[2] Robert Musumeci, ‘My Insights In Response To The PN Bill On Judicial Review’ (5 December 2023) <https://robertmusumeci.com/my-insights-in-response-to-the-pn-bill-on-judicial-review/> accessed [18/12/2023].
[3] Sabrina Zammit, ‘New Youth Advisory Forum to be set up by government – Prime Minister Robert Abela’ The Malta Independent (20 March 2023) <https://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2023-03-20/local-news/New-Youth-Advisory-Forum-to-be-set-up-by-government-Prime-Minister-Robert-Abela-6736250522> accessed [18/12/2023].
[4] Refer to: Victor Mifsud vs Lt Col Edward George Carter, Court of Appeal 16 June
1947 Vol XXXIII.i.122 wherin the Court asserted that: ‘l-Boardijiet, ta' kwalunkwe natura jistgħu jkunu qegħdin jeżerċitaw funzjonijiet semiġudizzjarji, huma però emanazzjoni tal-Poter Eżekuttiv, u mhumiex parti tal-organament tal-ordni Ġudizzjarju, cioè tal-Qrati. Dan iġib illi għalhekk il-ġurisdizzjoni tagħhom għandha tkun neċessarjament limitata skont l-istat kreativ ta’ dak il-Board; u dik il-ġurisdizzjoni ma tistax tgħaddi dawk il-limiti.
[5] Ridge v Baldwin [1964] AC 40, UKHL 2.
[6] Marse-Ann Farrugia, ‘The Development of Judicial Review of Administrative Action In Malta’ (LL.D thesis, University of Malta 1993) 159
[7] Anthony Ellul Sullivan noe vs Lino C Vassallo noe et, Court of Appeal 26 June 1987 Vol LXXI.ii.356.
[8] Thomas Montalto vs Maġġur Stanley JA Clews et, Civil Court (First Hall) 26 May 1987 Vol.LXXI.iii.688.
[9] ibid, ‘din il-Qorti taqbel mal-principji enunċjati mill-Qrati tagħna li l-esklużjoni tal-ġurisdizzjoni tal-Qrati li jistħarrġu għemil amministrattiv għandha tkun ġġustifikata biss jekk il-Qorti tkun sodisfatta li fil-prattika, persuna kellha rimedju effikaċi u xieraq disponibbli għaliha u hija naqset li tirrikorri għalih bla raġuni tajba. Illi fondamentali hija l-osservazzjoni li l-kawża in mertu deċiża mit-Tribunal għal Talbiet Żgħar għaddiet in ġudikat.’.
[10] 903/21/1 AD L-Avukat Malcolm Mifsud u l-Avukat Cedric Mifsud vs Il-Bord ta’ Sorveljanza Dwar Sanzjonijiet, Court of Appeal 5 October 2023.
[11] 2633/2000/1 Direttur Ġenerali tal-Qrati vs Pinu Axiaq, Court of Appeal 3 March 2006.
[12] R v Panel on Take-Overs and Mergers, ex parte Datafin plc [1987] QB 815.
[13] 90/2009 Kaptan Mario Grech vs Gozo Channel Company Limited, Civil Court (First Hall) 27 April 2010.
[14] Hampshire County Council v Graham Beer [2003] EWCA Civ 1056.
[15] Joint Committee on Human Rights, The Meaning of Public Authority under the Human Rights Act, (ninth report of Session 2006–07) (HL 77 HC 410) 28 March 2007.
[16] R v Leonard Cheshire Foundation [2001] EWHC 429.[17] HWR Wade, CF Forsyth, Administrative Law (10th edn, Oxford University Press 2009) 731.
[18] 61/2003/1 Christopher Hall et vs Direttur tad-Dipartiment għall-Akkomodazzjoni Soċjali, Constitutional Court 18 September 2009.
[19] 9287/2020, Mark Calleja vs Ministru Għall-Edukazzjoni u Impjiegi, Constitutional Court 28 October 2022.
[20] 537/2015 Godfrey Scicluna vs Prim Ministru et, Civil Court (First Hall) 12 March 2020.
[21] 701/1999 Emanuel Ciantar vs Kummissarju tal-Pulizija, Constitutional Court 2 November 2001.
[22] Directive 2012/29/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA [2012] OJ L315/57.
[23] Il-Pulizija (Spettur Wayne Borg) vs Jonathan Ferris, Decree by Court of Magistrates (Malta) 5 October 2022.
[24] Francesco Antolisei, Manuale di Diritto Privato: Parte Generale (16th edn, Giuffre 2003) 848.
[25] ‘Cohabitation deeds on hold as notaries locked in talks with government’ The Shift (9February 2018) <https://theshiftnews.com/2018/02/09/cohabitation-deeds-on-hold-as-notaries-locked-in-talks-with-government/> accessed [18/12/2023].
[26] Judicial Review Bill HR (XIV 2023) [1].