A ruling handed down yesterday by the board conducting the inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is more significant than the very little coverage it got in the press suggests.

State’s Attorney Victoria Buttigieg asked the board to be allowed to participate in the inquiry in order to be able to cross-examine witnesses heard by the board and to make arguments to the inquiring judges.

The government argued that justice required it is given the same access to the inquiry that the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia currently enjoy.

The judges disagreed. In a hard-hitting decree, the judges ruled that it is perfectly acceptable for the state’s attorney to attend the hearings of the inquiry that are open to the general public but as with everyone else it will be up to the judges to decide whether the state’s attorney is to be allowed to listen in during closed-door sessions.

This effectively means that the state’s attorney has been told it has exactly the same access to the inquiry as I have or as you the reader has. No more, no less.

The judges reminded the state’s attorney that its term of reference require it to determine whether any body of the state has acted or failed to act in a way that failed to prevent the assassination of the journalist. That includes the attorney general’s office which used to include the functions of today’s state’s attorney. Therefore the government is a subject of the inquiry, not a party in some dispute about it.

The judges also pointed out that their terms of reference clearly define the potential victims of this crime: Daphne’s family and society at large, not the government. “We note that our terms of reference have established that it is the ‘public’, not the government or the public administration or the state that may have been prejudiced by a possible failure of the state. That’s because state entities are meant to serve the public and when they fail to do that they are answerable to citizens.”

Judges Michael Mallia, Abigail Lofaro and Joe Said Pullicino stated in their decree that the government has no legal standing to participate in an inquiry and the government cannot expect to be treated in the same way as the relatives of the victim.

“It was therefore fundamentally mistaken for the state’s attorney to even try to sit at the same plane with the victims and to expect to be represented in the process ‘in the spirit of balance and justice in which this inquiry for impartial truth is established’,” the judges said quoting the government’s lawyers words back at her.

The judges also pointed out that public officials summoned to testify at the inquiry are being asked to give account of their own conduct and should therefore not be assisted by the state when they testify to the inquiry. The inquiry board dismissed the government’s argument that when forced to testify at the inquiry, witnesses were being forced to forfeit their right to protect their own reputation.

Judges Mallia, Lofaro and Said Pullicino ruled that the government’s claim that the conduct of the inquiry is unbalanced is wrong and pointed out that any witness who wishes to have legal assistance can bring their own and do not need the government to represent them.

On this basis the judges said they were fine with the government attending the inquiry with the general public but any other access to proceedings will be granted at their discretion as has happened so far.

The decision is significant because the judges have declared explicitly that the inquiry they are conducting is intended to find and establish the truth and not to create an adversarial discussion to determine who wins, whether the government or the victim’s family.

It is also significant that the government is proving unhappy with an inquiry process it itself set up. In open court the judges have more than once reminded witnesses that the board is working on the government’s instructions and on terms of reference drawn up for them by the government itself.

But an attempt by the same government to convert an inquiry into a debate between it and the surviving victims of this assassination has been thwarted.

The Labour Party’s TV station yesterday reported briefly this decision as a victory for government. The report said that the government has been allowed to attend the inquiry which was never in question. Indeed, everyone is allowed to attend the inquiry. What the Labour Party’s TV station did not report is that all the requests the government has made to the inquiry have been denied.

The inquiry continues.