The State Advocate Chris Soler complained to the Chamber of Advocates of having been humiliated by public statements uttered by Repubblika’s President Robert Aquilina. Aquilina was writing about his expectations of the behaviour of the state attorney and his client, attorney general Victoria Buttigieg, when the court was yesterday due to hear Repubblika’s arguments why Buttigieg was wrong to let two people from Pilatus Bank walk away free.
As it happened the court session didn’t happen because the judge was indisposed.
I’m not sure Robert Aquilina is intimately familiar with how the state advocate for North Korea behaves on any given Thursday. Comparing Malta’s top government lawyers with their North Korean counterparts, however, is not mere hyperbole. Whether the charge is humiliating or not is by the by. What matters is what the simile is saying.
The accusation is that Soler and Buttigieg are disregarding law and justice and prioritising over those values their clients’ wishes.
The Chamber of Advocates yesterday recalled its oft repeated maxim that as long as they work within rules of ethical conduct lawyers should never be blamed for the conduct of their clients, nor for seeking their clients’ best interest.
To speak like that about the attorney general and the state advocate is to ignore (as they do) the fact that they are far more than hired hands for a client. They are state officials, civil servants. They are servants, that is, of the public interest, of the republic, of justice. They are expected to be fair and they are expected to be loyal to the truth before indulging loyalty to some minister or former prime minister.
And as attorneys to the state, it should be clear to them that “Malta” is greater than the government of the day. Malta includes, even, inconvenient civil society organisations and individuals. We are part of the process whether the government likes it or not and we will not apologise for the inconvenience we cause the authorities by our challenges.
Here is where the conversation gets stunted. The public does not know what is happening behind the closed doors of the Pilatus Bank case because Chris Soler and Victoria Buttigieg have brought all manner of excuses to get the court to throw out the public and the press from the court room. Within the confines of the courtroom the public cannot judge their conduct because the public is not there to witness it.
The Chamber of Advocates tells us not to judge the lawyer by the behaviour of their client, which is fair enough. But can we ignore the identity of the client when on behalf of the government the state advocate and the attorney general rise to their full height and seek to strike us down? Is that just the lawyers doing that? Or is it the might the state can and does mobilise against a handful of individuals who have the audacity to challenge misconduct?
When the lawyers of the state come into the room with us, close the door behind them, lock it and throw away the key, are they just members of a well-meaning profession or the people in this country with the power to decide when people who are guilty of crimes are allowed to walk away?
Consider that Victoria Buttigieg is the woman who used her power to pardon a man for shooting several dozen rounds in the general direction of uniformed police officers and she didn’t think she owed anyone an explanation when she did that. Knowing that, is it beyond anyone’s imagination that behind closed doors one who forgives the guilty to serve hidden interests might punish the innocent to serve her own?
Robert Aquilina told Chris Soler to grow a pair after the state attorney whined with the Chamber of Advocates. Imagine that. The most senior government lawyer of a country quaking in his boots because an activist criticised him on Facebook. To be fair, it is rather silly.
I think there’s something more sinister though when a professional body places itself between the might of government power and its critics to defend the power from the criticism laid at its feet. I think we’re being told that we must be nice. We’re being told that we must submit to whatever is thrown at us beyond the sight and awareness of the public in a closed court-room because that is the price we must pay for questioning the decisions of the attorney general.
Granted that lawyers must act in the interests of their clients and should be allowed to do so without feeling guilty about it. But as the Chamber said, the lawyers must act within the bounds of ethics. Here’s one ethical rule they may need to be reminded of: they must declare who their client is. And though they’re clearly working for them, Soler and Buttigieg never said they represent the swindlers at Pilatus Bank and the prematurely retired politicians who used their services.