Court dismisses Birdlife claims about legality of hunting licenses

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A court on Thursday dismissed a claim by Birdlife Malta that placing the wild bird regulatory unit under the Gozo Department rather than the Environment Department breached the spirit of the law.

The crux of the matter was a decision by the Prime Minister to place the WBRU and the Ornis Committee under the Gozo Ministry, instead of keeping them under the Ministry of the Environment.

Such a decision ran counter to the general provisions of the Environmental Protection Act and related subsidiary legislation which made the Minister for the Environment the principal administrator of any structure or process under it, argued Birdlife.

Yet despite a letter from Birdlife Malta CEO Mark Sultana to the Prime Minister in January 2020, the decision was made.

Birdlife followed up its letter with a criminal complaint to the police commissioner, claiming that all permits issued for the spring 2020 hunting season were issued illegally.

But the police dismissed the complaint, saying they had no authority to act on it.

In April 2020, Birdlife took its grievances to court by bringing a civil action against the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Gozo, claiming that the defendants had acted beyond their powers in issuing permits of hunting.

They also asked the court to order the revocation of these licenses and to provide adequate measures accordingly.

The Wild Bird Unit was not only supposed to regulate hunting and trapping, but was also responsible for any necessary waivers in light of scientific issues and, in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act, all bird issues should be dealt with by the environment minister, Birdlife argued. .

Yet in 2020 Spring Hunting Permits were issued under the Gozo Department’s header and whenever an application was made to the Wild Bird Unit it was redirected to that Department.

However, Richard Lia, who has led this unit since 2018, said hunting permits were issued exclusively by the unit and the process was not influenced in any way by a minister.

The derogation allowing quail hunting in spring 2020 was announced through a joint statement by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Gozo after consultation with the Environment and Resources Authority.

Since the licenses were issued by the unit, there was no irregularity in the process, the respondents argued.

There was no template for these licenses and the fact that they were issued under the Gozo Ministry’s letterhead “meant nothing”, the court heard.

By means of a preliminary decision, the Prime Minister was declared dismissed.

In delivering judgment, the First Chamber of the Civil Court, presided over by Judge Neville Camilleri, observed that a reading of the relevant legislation showed that the only entity empowered to issue licenses is the Wild Bird Regulatory Unit.

The Ornis Committee makes recommendations on the opening or not of the hunting season.

Since hunting licenses were issued by the unit, even under the heading of the Ministry of Gozo, the defendant ministries could not be considered to have acted ultra vires because they had not issued a licence, the court said.

Birdlife had also requested the revocation of licenses issued in 2020.

But the court ruled that these licenses were applicable between April 10 and April 30, 2020 and had therefore long since expired.

This request was also rejected.

Nothing more could be said about Birdlife’s last request for adequate measures once the first two requests had been rejected, the court concluded and therefore also rejected this request.

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