President George Vella is breaching the constitution every day that he refuses to sign a controversial IVF reform into law, two legal experts agree.
Kevin Aquilina, a former dean of the Faculty of Laws, warned that President Vella is not meeting his duty as head of state when placing his personal reservations over a reform above the will of the people.
“The president is there to serve the constitution and not the other way around. Every day that this bill, approved by parliament, waits gathering dust on the president’s desk in the palace, is another day that the constitution is not being respected,” Prof. Aquilina said.
Article 72 of the Constitution of Malta has a provision that states that the president must assent to bills ‘without delay’ once they have passed through parliament.
The amendments were approved by MPs on July 6, gaining support from both parties with 66 votes in favour and three against.
President Vella is understood to be personally uncomfortable with the reform, which will allow medical professionals to screen embryos for a limited number of genetic conditions.
Sources said the delay, now more than two weeks since the amendments were approved in parliament, is starting to make government members anxious. Until the law is signed, the reform cannot be implemented.
Questions sent to the office of the president earlier this week have remained unanswered. Vella would only say that the bill will be signed but never specified that he would be the one to sign it.
Aquilina said that if the country must wait until the president goes abroad for the acting president to sign the bill, this means that the constitutional provision would have been breached by every successive day that the bill remains unsigned.
It is understood that Vella plans to travel abroad next month, with Acting President Frank Bezzina expected to sign the bill into law.
Describing the situation as “obscene”, Aquilina said he could not recall a single other instance in Malta’s history when a president had simply left a bill waiting for weeks to be signed.
Constitutional law expert Therese Comodini Cachia said there was no wriggle room for the president. “The constitution is clear. The president must sign all laws passed through parliament without delay,” she said. The presidency, she said, does not enjoy any discretion or exercise any power over legislation. Instead, Vella’s only role is that of putting his signature to it.
The constitution is clear. The president must sign all laws passed through parliament without delay- Constitutional law expert Therese Comodini Cachia
“The delay in fulfilling his constitutional obligation is not only disappointing but continues to reflect how state entities, the highest constitutional role in this case, feel they can disrespect and disobey the very rules which are there to ensure stability and certainty in the way this country is administered.”
A lecturer on Constitutional Law at the University of Malta, Comodini Cachia said the delay does not only breach the constitution but is also stopping people from accessing medical and health-related services. Irrespective of whether he agrees or disagrees with this medical procedure, Vella’s role obliges him not to hamper its introduction in any manner.
It turns out that a former president has already weighed in on this matter in the past.
In his ‘Manual for the Presidency’, President Emeritus Ugo Mifsud Bonnici also weighs in on the matter. He wrote that “it does not appear that the president can refuse the consensus, rather the presidential consensus has the function of validating”. He goes on to say that the president’s role is to ensure that the proposed law has gone through all the rigours of the parliamentary procedure and that it does not violate the constitution.
However, if the president feels that there is a conflict between what is being put forward in the new law and the constitution, then it cannot be left on the back burner. Instead, it must be referred to the Constitutional Court.
“The president cannot deny consenting to the law because it goes against their principles or morals. If the president feels that they cannot, in good conscience, give their consensus then they must resign,” Mifsud Bonnici writes.
While Vella has shown no signs that he is planning on resigning, he now faces calls for his impeachment over his refusal to sign off on the reform.
On Saturday, Green party ADPD said Vella should be removed from office. ADPD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo said that had a Green electoral candidate been elected to parliament they would have already presented a motion for Vella’s impeachment.
The IVF reform was a flagship proposal of the Labour Party during the March election campaign, with Prime Minister Robert Abela promising to deliver it within 100 days of being returned to office.
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