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Case highlights the need to protect the impartiality of judges

Micallef v. Malta  | 2009

Case highlights the need to protect the impartiality of judges

The close family ties between the opposing party’s advocate and the Chief Justice sufficed to objectively justify fears that the presiding judge lacked impartiality

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, 15th October 2009

Background

Mrs M was involved in a legal battle with her neighbour. The judge presiding over the court was the brother and uncle of two of the lawyers representing her neighbour in the case. The court ruled against Mrs M. and in favour of the neighbour. Mrs M complained that the court had been biased.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Strasbourg court ruled that the close family ties between the opposing party’s lawyers and the presiding judge justified fears that the judge lacked impartiality. This breached Mrs M’s right to a fair trial.

The court noted that under Maltese law at the time, there was no automatic duty for a judge to withdraw from cases where impartiality could be an issue. There was also no way for a person to request that a judge should not hear their case, when they were related to the other side’s lawyers.

Follow-up

After the case was lodged with the Strasbourg court, Maltese law was changed. It now allows a judge to be challenged or abstain from dealing with a case, if one of the legal representatives is a close relation.