A Constitutional case filed by Nationalist (PN) MP Stephen Spiteri in an attempt to stop a Medical Council investigation into his issuing of fake medical certificates has no legal basis, the State Advocate has said in court. The case has been put off till November for final submissions.
Spiteri filed proceedings before the Constitutional Court in September 2020, asking it to intervene and stop an inquiry by the Medical Council, over what he claims is a breach of his right to a fair hearing, a claim that has been dismissed by the State Advocate.
Spiteri is claiming that the fact that the Medical Council is legally empowered to both investigate his case and decide on a punishment, breaches his right to a fair hearing, citing both provisions of the Constitution and the European Charter on Human Rights.
The Medical Council’s obligation to investigate, and decide on, complaints by the public is enshrined in the Health Care Professions Act, which was passed into law in 2003.
Replying to Spiteri’s court application, the State Advocate argued that the filing of Constitutional proceedings was premature given that Spiteri had not exhausted all legal avenues before.
“Constitutional proceedings cannot replace ordinary proceedings,” the State Advocate’s office said, adding that proceedings before the Medical Council were still underway. The reply also noted that decisions by the council could, and needed, to be appealed before such Constitutional proceedings could be considered.
Moreover, it pointed out that Spiteri’s references to the European case law were irrelevant since they concerned criminal cases, which the case at hand was not. It dismissed concerns about the right to a fair hearing since any decision that could be taken could be challenged by a higher competent body.
What was the case all about?
The case dates back to November 2017 when Lovin Malta revealed a racket of medical certificates being signed and sold at Brown’s Pharmacy in Kalkara where Spiteri is the resident doctor. This website was initially alerted to the operation by an anonymous source who sent in footage of the receptionist at the pharmacy handing out certificates to individuals who had not been seen by the doctor.
Lovin Malta’s sources in fact said that they had managed to buy two certificates in this manner. This was confirmed by Lovin Malta by calling up the pharmacy and requesting a certificate.
The receptionist confirmed that a certificate could be obtained by passing by the pharmacy and providing it with the personal details of the person for whom it was to be issued. The certificate could then be collected from the pharmacy the following morning.
Lovin Malta reported the matter to the Medical Council, which is empowered by the Health Care Professions Act – passed into law in 2003 – to investigate the case and take disciplinary action.
What action was taken by the Medical Council?
Roughly three weeks after the publication of the article, on 18th December 2017 and following countless emails and a formal complaint by this website, the Medical Council requested an explanation from Spiteri.
In it, he claimed that the only instances in which he issued certificates without seeing patients were “with regard to chronically ill patients”.
On the face of it, Spiteri’s claim appears to be patently false, given that Lovin Malta has evidence of at least two instances in which medical certificates were issued to patients who had never seen Spiteri.
The explanation of the procedure given to Lovin Malta by the receptionist at Brown’s Pharmacy also suggests that Spiteri was not truthful in his reply to the Medical Council.
Spiteri further claimed – wrongly once again – that Lovin Malta’s story was merely a “malicious attempt” to tarnish the reputation of the medical profession and that the receptionist who answered the phone at the pharmacy had somehow been prompted “to say words which the journalist wanted her to say”.
As with all politicians who find themselves being held accountable for their actions, Spiteri also claimed that this website somehow had a “hidden motive or agenda”.
Following a preliminary investigation, a decision was taken to open an inquiry into the allegations, with Spiteri called in to answer questions in October 2018 – almost one year later.
Attempts to have investigation dismissed
This case went cold for almost two years but a sitting was finally held in September 2020. The sitting was due to hear testimony from three witnesses – Lovin Malta CEO Chris Peregin, whose report and subsequent complaint led to the investigation; assistant police commissioner Dennis Theuma, who had been referred the case for investigation; and a representative from Brown’s Pharmacy.
All three received a summons to appear before the Medical Council sub-committee tasked with carrying out the inquiry, according to the medical council’s file on the case however only Peregin’s and Theuma’s testimony are included.
Peregin explained to the subcommittee how the story had come about, while Theuma said that after discussing the matter with the Attorney General, it had been decided that there was no breach of the criminal code, and therefore no grounds for a criminal investigation.
Theuma also said that while there were no grounds for a criminal investigation, he had felt compelled to forward details of the case to Superintendent for Public Health Charmaine Gauci in case there were grounds for disciplinary action. Gauci had forwarded the correspondence to the Medical Council with the message “kindly note below”.
No testimony, or indeed a confirmation of attendance by a Brown’s Pharmacy representative is included in the file.
During that sitting, lawyers representing Spiteri had argued that the case was time-barred since two years had elapsed since it was first reported. The Medical Council opted to continue with its investigation, with Spiteri then filing his case in court.
In the year since the case was filed, there have been a handful of sittings, with the only witness called to testify being the Medical Council’s registrar, who on his part explained to the court the procedure employed by the council in dealing with such cases.
With both sides having declared that they have no further evidence to present, the case was last week put off till November – a full five months – for lawyers to make their final submissions in the case.
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