Owen Bonnici – (Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and the Local Government.)
Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was one of a kind. I have never met anyone like him throughout my life.
I want to declare things upfront: I am totally biased in favour of Karmenu because I have seen only good things from him and has changed my life completely for the better. He trusted me blindly as a friend, confided in me as if we had a fraternal relationship and, most importantly, educated me in the ways of the law and more as the best teacher I could ever have.
He loved me dearly, and I loved him back with all my heart.
When Karmenu was Prime Minister, I was just a young boy. By the time he stepped down from Leader of the Labour Party I was 12. I remember him, in my youth, mostly as a very prominent Industrial Lawyer on the side of the General Workers’ Union and a very diligent member of the backbench in Parliament, dissecting assiduously (and improving through this effort) most laws including the novel Financial Services legislation which was a game changer for our economny.
It was roundabout in the year 2000 that I plucked up courage to ask Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici to see whether he would allow me to do legal practice with him. I was just in my third year of a six-year long law course, which, back then, seemed like an eternity.
Doing legal practice is an essential ingredient of the course. One year is enough, but I had wanted to taste what it means to be a lawyer in Court from an early age. The problem was, with whom would I do legal practice?
My family had no connections at all. My father, a very humble and unassuming person, suggested me to speak to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici because from the few times he casually met him at Union Press where dad worked, he seemed a really nice person.
And so I did. From then on we hit a student-worker relationship, if you can call it that, which lasted until he started to downscale his legal practice by 2008/2010. It was great fun - Karmenu had such a splendid sense of humour - and extremely instructive.
Having Karmenu by my side gave me the courage to try and upon up my own legal office from the word go. I knew that I had someone who could guide me, from the legal point of view as more and more clientele started building up.
He thought me how to interpret the law correctly, how to carry myself and act in a way which safeguards the interests of clients and the profession itself. He transformed me from a naive young man into a man, he inducted me into semi-public life and showed me how to act correctly with clients and with the profession itself.
“One thing,” Magistrate Joe Mifsud often quips, “Karmenu did not teach you. How to get paid!” It is true, cause most of the time Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici acted pro-bono, out of genuine pure love of others.
I used to assist Karmenu in all his legal work and he was the bastion of strength I needed as a young 24/25 year old. This symbioses worked perfectly.
The time we spent on the benches in Court writing, by hand, notes of submissions, notes of appeals and all sorts of application was a labour of love. He had a patience like no other, he was kind when I took mistakes, corrected me as if nothing had happened and gave me loads and loads of time and attention. And more importantly, trust.
His friends and acquaintances, including one fiery person with the name of Dom Mintoff, became also my acquaintances and quickly I was being referred to as the guy who is always with Karmenu. And truly, I used to cherish each second I spent with this learned lawyer, I used to cherish the conversations we had in Cafes around Valletta (he really had a sweet tooth) and used to enjoy listening to the various stories people told me about him.
What frightened my wits out was the impressive list of fantastic lawyers who made legal practice before me with Karmenu. That was some pressure, trust me! If I had to pinpoint one former student who Karmenu spoke highly of that would certainly be Dr Georg Sapiano.
Karmenu was very reserved by nature but with me he sort of unwinded. He used to tell me episodes of what happened in the past, but also of what was happening at the time. Indeed, that was a really exciting period in our history: Malta was joining the European Union, Karmenu had his own “Campaign for National Independence” and then “Front Maltin Inqumu” and Mintoff at the time was still at odds with the Party.
Karmenu was also frequently in the news from the Industrial law point of view.
I remember the work he did when a Nationalist Administration proposed a new Industrial Law: he was treated with immense respect by the authorities at the time and he did the same. He proposed a number of amendments – of course, handwritten (handcrafted I used to tell him cause he had such beautiful handwriting) – which were all taken very seriously.
I also remember the work he did for hundreds of Drydocks employees, as well as other unions such as UPAP.
He commanded, in general, great respect in the Law Courts. Members of the Judiciary, lawyers and staff alike treated the former Prime Minister with respect, and he used to exhude an aura of good standing, through his humble ways.
There are anectodes which made me laugh so much. I remember him telling me the first time he met Mr Justice Toni Abela (at the time Mr Justice Abela was a lawyer in private practice). “I was teaching at the Faculty of Laws,” he told me. “And out of the blue comes in this guy dressed in funny robes and with overgrown facial hair. I genuinely thought he was a foreigner and asked him, in English, from which country does he come from. It turned out to be Toni Abela, who had come back from a summer in India!”
He always told me that Dr Abela was one of the sharpest legal minds in Court, as was – in his view – Dr Pawlu Lia. Actually I very rarely heard him speak badly about anyone – although there were people who over time let him down from his time in the Labour Party and afterwards.
Dr Mifsud Bonnici was a devout Christian. He was as devout a Christian as much as he was a firm Socialist. As a young stupid boy that I was at the time, I used to challenge his blind commitment to Christianity, but he would disarm me using mainly principles put forward by St Thomas Aquinas. As regards to his love for Socialism, I could not but listen to his views about the left: he was incredibly well read.
Karmenu was a Christian and a true Socialist and he lived Christianity and Socialism every day in practice. He never asked anything for himself, was always keen to help others in the quiet and had a heart of gold.
As we are, as a country, biding farewell to this unique man with a fantastic sense of humour, extraordinary intelligence and a special commitment to social and christian values, I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for all the good things he did for a long list of people.
I am one of them.
Thank you Dr Mifsud Bonnici. I will always carry our memories in my heart.