EC court hearing on bird hunting in Malta held behind closed doors
The court case against Malta over spring bird hunting was held behind closed doors at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg this week.
Sources in Brussels explained that the decision to hear submissions by the Maltese government and the Commission in camera was taken by the court’s President Vassilios Skouris. This decision is permissible under European rules, but hearings are normally held publicly. However, owing to the sensitivity of this case, particularly for Malta, it was decided that it would be better for both parties to submit their arguments in a more informal way. The same source said that most probably this situation would keep hunters who wanted to be present at the case out of the court room.
The court’s decision to hold an oral hearing before handing down judgment was taken at the end of March following the sending of the defence dossier prepared by Malta to the EU Executive.
Malta made its defence submissions on March 7. This was the last day of the 15-day deadline given by Luxembourg. The Commission’s counter-submissions were presented to the court on March 14.
The hearing on Wednesday 2 April was held before the court’s President, responsible for deciding on the issue of "interim measures". It was attended only by the two defence teams, one headed by Malta’s Attorney General Silvio Camilleri and the other by Italian EC official Donatella Recchia who is heading the Commission’s legal team.
Sources in Brussels who are following the case for International Animal Rescue stated that it was not yet clear whether the court would make a formal decision immediately after hearing the submissions. This meant that the Government of Malta would not be able to open the hunting season for this year.
There is currently huge tension in Malta amongst the hunting community. Most of the hunters elected not to go out hunting illegally but a small number decided otherwise and broke the law. IAR received reports of lawbreaking during the past few days which were passed on to the Police authorities.
Following various warnings to ban spring hunting, the Commission officially submitted a formal case against Malta to the European Court of Justice last February, requesting that the court declare spring hunting on the island illegal.
The Commission also asked the court to issue an urgent decision, known as "interim measures", barring the Maltese authorities from allowing any hunting in spring until a final decision on the original case had been taken by the court.
If the court upholds the Commission’s request and issues interim measures, no hunting will take place this spring until the original case is heard and judged.
The original case, registered as Case 76/08, could take up to some years to be decided.
By applying a derogation under the EU’s Birds Directive, Malta is the only EU member state that still permits the hunting of quail and turtle doves in spring.
The Commission argues that Malta’s derogation is not justified and that the hunting of these migratory birds takes place during their return from Africa to breeding grounds in Europe, before they have had a chance to reproduce. The impact on bird numbers is, therefore, more significant than it would be in autumn or winter.
The fact that the hunting season was not declared open by the Maltese authorities made a big difference to the fauna which migrates during this time of the year over Malta. So far the International Animal Rescue bird hospital has only taken in one injured bird. Usually by March the hospital will have on average between ten and fifteen birds to care for.