The Malta Independent 14 April 2021, Wednesday

Castille lock-up: Speaker was led into issuing ruling he had no power to issue - Hyzler

Neil Camilleri Thursday, 4 March 2021, 13:29 Last update: about 2 months ago

A ruling given by Speaker Anglu Farrugia in which he declared that the Standards Commissioner had gone beyond his legal remit was itself ultra vires and based on an incorrect premise, George Hyzler said.

The Speaker’s ruling concerned a report by Hyzler in which the Standards Czar found that former PM Joseph Muscat had breached ethics when journalists were locked up in Castille after a 3am press conference in November 2019.

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Speaker ruled that Hyzler should not have carried out his investigation since the case is still pending in the courts.

The ruling was requested by Byron Camilleri and Edward Zammit Lewis, who said the Standards Commissioner had gone beyond his legal remit and his report was, as a result, invalid. They also argued that Hyzler’s report was pointless since Muscat is no longer an MP. Farrugia, along with the government MPs, also voted against the publication of the report.

In a letter sent to the Speaker, Hyzler said he would have “greatly appreciated an opportunity to discuss the request with you before you issued your ruling.”

“Had you given me such an opportunity I would have expressed my profound concern that the request was an invitation to you to act in a manner that exceeds your legal powers, and this on the basis of an incorrect premise,” he said.

Hyzler said he feared that the Speaker’s ruling “could undermine the aim of raising ethical standards that underlies the establishment of my office and that we all aspire to achieve.”

Hyzler said that Speaker has authority over Parliamentary proceedings, but his ruling of 2 March “seeks to constrain my remit as Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, which emerges not from the Standing Orders but from the Standards in Public Life Act.”

“It is not within your power as Speaker, or as chairman of the Standards Committee, to interpret a law. It is the law itself which may establish a mechanism for its interpretation, failing which this becomes a matter for the courts.”

The Standing Committee for Standards in Public Life, also referred to as the ethics committee, has the power to oversee and scrutinise the work of the Standards Commissioner, but this power does not extend to the interpretation of the law, and moreover it is to be exercised by the Committee as a whole, not by its chairperson, Hyzler noted.

While the committee can reject a report on legal grounds, this role cannot be exercised by the chairperson alone. The exercise of this role presupposes a discussion of the report by the Committee.

“It is my firm view that, for transparency’s sake, such a discussion should take place in public, and it should be preceded by the publication of the relevant report.”

“In your capacity as chairperson of the Committee, you have a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes. You may of course choose to explain why you have exercised your casting vote in one way or another. However, the Act does not give you the authority to take decisions in the form of “rulings”, or in any other form, that are binding on the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life.”

The Standard Commissioner’s Act states that, in the exercise of his functions the Commissioner is not subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority. “Your ruling is, in my view, in direct conflict with this provision,” Hyzler told Farrugia.

“For these reasons it is my firm view that you have been led into issuing a ruling that you do not have the power to issue, hence it is ultra vires. This is particularly ironic considering that the ruling was issued in response to a request claiming that I myself was acting ultra vires.”

The Standards Czar also said that the Speaker’s ruling was based on an incorrect premise.

He argued that his own investigation and the criminal proceedings “dealt with two separate and distinct matters.”

His investigation concerned the conduct of former PM Joseph Muscat in relation to the treatment of journalists, while the court case concerned the conduct of three individuals who blocked journalists from leaving.

“There was no evidence in the criminal proceedings or in my investigation that linked the three persons charged in court with the former Prime Minister whose conduct was the subject of my investigation. Neither does my report consider the behaviour of the individuals who were the subject of the criminal proceedings. My report specifically excludes any question regarding alleged criminal acts or responsibility therefor by any party involved.”

The report, Hyzler said, can have absolutely no bearing on the criminal proceedings against the three men, which is currently at appeals stage.

He added that, since it seems that no action will be taken by the Speaker, given his recent ruling, he was sending Farrugia a copy of the report to be tabled in Parliament.

“I am aware that the report has already been made public, but I believe that at the very least it merits being placed in the public domain through official rather than unofficial means.”

 

Speaker should go - Repubblika

Reacting, civil society NGO Repubblika called for Anglu Farrugia’s immediate resignation.

“It is clear that the Speaker went beyond his power and took part in an attempt to undermine the institution tasked with ensuring standards in public life.”
Repubblika said it is clear that Farrugia acted in a partisan way to keep Hyzler’s investigation under wraps, to protect Muscat.

“To hide and excuse someone’s unethical behaviour is in itself unethical.”

It said Hyzler’s warning to the Speaker leaves no room for doubt. Farrugia’s position has become untenable, and he should resign with immediate effect.

 

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