The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

TMID Editorial: A kiss in the courtroom

Thursday, 23 June 2022, 08:50 Last update: about 3 days ago

A kiss on the cheek and a hug between two cousins in a courtroom created a whirlwind of controversy in the past days.

It all happened when newly-elected MP Janice Chetcuti and her cousin Melhino Mercieca exchanged what the Chamber of Advocates later described as a “short hug and possibly a peck on the cheek that lasted a few seconds” in a courtroom.

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This friendly embrace irked the presiding magistrate, Yana Micallef Stafrace who, according to Chetcuti, insulted her. The court, in recording the incident officially, noted that this conduct was “highly disrespectful” and urged the Chamber of Advocates to look into the matter.

For its part, the chamber said that while such behaviour by Chetcuti should have been avoided, the reaction by the magistrate was disproportionate. To compare what Chetcuti did to the behaviour of a “whore” and the “worst criminal”, according to a statement issued by the chamber, was “inappropriate, unacceptable and intolerable”.

That Chetcuti is a newly-elected MP, for the Nationalist Party, also helped to raise public attention to the incident to a higher level.

Some argue that this is the perfect example of making a mountain out of a molehill. The Chamber of Advocates itself said that a simple reprimand would have gone a long way to settle the issue, and the matter would have stopped there. It would have probably not even made it to the headlines. And we would not be writing this editorial either.

The thing is, both the lawyer and the magistrate could have easily avoided this hullaballoo. Chetcuti should have refrained from her actions, irrespective of the length of time she had not seen her cousin. She should have waited until she left the courtroom to embrace and hug him. She should know that the courtroom is not a place where people meet socially.

For her part, Micallef Stafrace should have just reprimanded Chetcuti or found her in contempt and fined her is she really wanted to press the point. (We do not agree that the magistrate should have resorted to fining the lawyer, but if Micallef Stafrace felt so offended by Chetcuti’s behaviour, then this would have been the course she should have taken). But the magistrate, at least according to the Chamber of Advocates, went far beyond.

The chamber described what the magistrate did as “humiliating treatment”, that she used “descriptive language” and manifested a “lack of any restraint” in handling a “minor infraction of conduct”.

Magistrates (and judges) consider the courtroom as their dominion, and while it is perfectly understandable that they demand respect and this respect should be afforded to them for the position they hold, they should be more reasonable. That some members of the judiciary still take offence if people in the courtroom sit cross-legged is, in this day and age, an exaggeration.

In the Chetcuti case, as the chamber said, the transgression cannot be minimised but, on the other hand, should have never been described as an “erotic” or “sexual” act.

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