A Nationalist Party constitutional case against the Office of the Prime Minister concerning political billboards is being lost in the bureaucratic scrapheap of Malta’s judicial system, with the judge overseeing the case putting off judgement for close to 28 months.
Judge Joseph R Micallef was meant to issue a decision over the case on 28th March 2019. However, since then the judgement has been deferred no less than 19 times.
Micallef was last meant to issue his judgement on 7th July 2021, but this has been delayed once again until 22nd September.
The constitutional case concerns a legal notice issued on 3rd April 2016 which demanded that political billboards were only allowed to erected three months before an election.
In terms of the new regulations, billboard owners would also have to pay Transport Malta an annual licence fee of €1,500 for every structure exceeding 0.5 square metres, if it wanted to do so outside the time period.
Soon after the legal notice, illegal billboards across the islands were served with Cease and Desist notices by the Planning Authority, which effectively ordered their removal.
The legal notice was introduced without public consultation. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce, the GRTU and other entities had criticised the move, saying that their members will be adversely hit.
The PN had argued in the case that the costs it would incur as a result would run up to about €30,000, effectively muzzling it and stifling its freedom of expression. It had claimed that the legal notice unfairly targeted the PN.
In one of the few sittings in the case, then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat testified over the issue, insisting that the legal notice created a level playing field and would not disadvantage anyone. Current Prime Minister Robert Abela had actually represented the Planning Authority in the case.
The sittings continued to bob along until Micallef announced that he was ready to make hiss decision. However, he is yet to do so almost two and a half years later.
Micallef, who was one of three judges to benefit from an increase in retirement age that was approved by parliament in October 2020, has a relatively light caseload compared to other members of the judiciary.
As of May 2021, Micallef had 83 pending cases. He is one of 18 civil judges who preside over the upper courts, but there are more than half who have a greater caseload than him. His number of pending cases has steadily dropped since 2017 when the case was first started, but his work on the PN constitutional case now seems to be on the back burner.
The legal notice was changed soon after the constitutional case was filed, with new regulations now exempting political billboards from the decree. It is unclear whether this will have any bearing on the judge’s decision or whether it has something to do with the delay.
What do you think of the delay?