The overturning of a prison sentence against a woman who was found trying to smuggling heroin into jail looks set to open a can of worms in the Maltese justice system.
For Claire Farrugia, like many other convicts, sentenced people and people still awaiting sentencing, didn’t have a lawyer present during her police interrogation, a right that was only introduced as recently as November 2016.
Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera ruled that the lack of a lawyer meant her interrogation was non-compliant with an EU directive, rendering her police statement inadmissible. As her statement formed the large chunk of the prosecution’s case against her, the entire case against Farrugia collapsed.
This decision essentially means that all police statements given before November 2016 are now inadmissible and that these cases only have a legal leg to stand on if the police had significant evidence to back up their prosecutions other than the statements of the accused.
A similar ruling was applied for Christopher Bartolo a few months ago and several more people are now expected to make submissions in court on these grounds attacking their charges or convictions.
Criminal lawyer Franco Debono
It represents a major legal victory for criminal lawyer Franco Debono, who as a PN MP had repeatedly urged the government to introduce the right to legal assistance during interrogations from as early as 2008. In 2010, the PN government of the day went halfway, deciding to enforce a 2002 law that gave suspects the right to a one-hour consultation with a lawyer prior to their interrogation after pressure from Debono who, immediately after, proposed an update that lawyers be present during the interrogation.
This led to a wave of judgements being dropped, with the courts ruling that police statements given without the one-hour legal assistance be dropped on the grounds that they breached the fundamental human rights of the accused. In Parliament, Franco Debono and the then Labour Opposition called for Home Affairs and Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici to shoulder political responsibility for the mess, with Mifsud Bonnici eventually being forced to resign after losing a vote of no confidence.
Meanwhile, Debono is now acting as defence lawyer for Claire Farrugia, Christopher Bartolo and several other people appealing their judgements on the grounds of irregularities in their police interrogations, after having filed way back in 2009 the first constitutional reference in this regard in the case of Alvin Privitera, who was also subsequently acquitted of drug trafficking.