More than 100 lawyers and legal procurators are unable to obtain their warrant because of a deadlock between the Justice Minister and the Committee for Advocates and Legal Procurators over a test that some are calling too invasive and discriminatory.

On Sunday, three student organisations - Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU), Malta Law Students' Society (G─žSL) and the Junior Chamber of Advocates - came out against the test, which they say is 'near discriminatory' because it requires law graduates to disclose past and present physical and mental health problems in the process of acquiring a warrant.

Justice Minister Jonathan Attard is also uncomfortable with some of the questions in the test and is refusing to approve it, but does not have the legal power to change it. Only the committee can change it, but it is seemingly reluctant to do so.

The student organisations are urging the committee to take on the minister's proposed amendments and are suggesting that he is given more legal power to move the stalled process forward.

But the Chamber of Advocates disagrees. On Monday it issued a statement saying this is a short-sighted solution - "a dangerous move" - and argued that giving more powers to the minister will only disrupt the many checks and balances that have been introduced to the system over the years to ensure the fair regulation of the profession.

How it all started

In order to acquire a warrant to practise law in Malta, law graduates must sit for written and oral examinations and fill out a 'fit and proper test' that is supposedly designed to determine whether they are fit to be warranted, based on their health condition and conduct.

The student organisations are opposing numerous "questions on mental health and addiction issues, spanning a 10-year period, physical disabilities and other health conditions".

"Even though the guidelines say that applicants with health conditions or disabilities are encouraged to pursue a career in law, candidates are still required to fully disclose and declare such information," the organisations said.

"Whilst understanding the necessity for the legal profession to maintain a high standard, it is inconceivable that mental health issues (even those suffered in the past) and disabilities continue to face potential prejudice."

Last week, MaltaToday said the test urges warrant applicants to make 'honest', 'candid' and 'frank' full disclosure on whether they presently have or have had "physical or mental health conditions, whether they have drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, or whether they had one in the previous ten years, irrespective of whether they have recovered".

Applicants are also urged to seek medical or psychological help before seeking to acquire the warrant.

Reportedly, the test also "asks lawyers to declare whether they have 'ever been subject to disciplinary action of any sort', including as a student, whether they are aware of any 'current outstanding complaints or disciplinary action' against them and whether they are involved 'in any litigation."

Additionally, it asks them whether they have ever formed part of freemasonry, have tax arrears or debts that they are unable to pay.

First time test added to requirements

This is the first time such a test has been added to the requirements, after it was introduced last year, following amendments to the law.

"Subjecting law graduates to an unnecessary, near discriminatory standard is not in line with what is required and is of immense disrespect to the hard work and patience the applicants have had over the past few months," the student organisations said.

But that is not even the entire problem.

The test guidelines are drafted by the Committee for Advocates and Legal Procurators, which is a committee within the Commission for the Administration for Justice, within the Justice Ministry.

The committee passes on the guidelines to the minister, who has the power to approve them.

But Attard has declared he is uncomfortable with some of the questions, and that despite wanting to strengthen the profession, he does not want it to be done in a way that places labels or puts valid candidates in a disadvantaged position.

He said he reviewed the guidelines and sent them back to the committee with amendments, but is still waiting for their next draft.

Therefore, lawyers can only obtain their warrants after the guidelines are approved, but the Minister is refusing to approve the guidelines because he wants them changed, but the law does not allow him to change them himself. And the committee, which has the power to change them, is so far reluctant to do so.

Thus, the situation is at an impasse, leaving more than 100 lawyers and legal procurators unable to obtain their warrants while they wait for the deadlock to be resolved.

The three student organisations are "in full agreement" with the Minister and are urging the committee to take on his suggestions.

'Graduates already faced unacceptable delays'

"Law graduates have already faced unacceptable delays to obtain their warrant. This impasse is immensely unfair to these graduates who cannot fully practise the profession, especially considering that they have successfully passed the written and oral examinations," they said.

"This committee’s insistence is severely hindering the development of these graduates’ legal careers."

They are also suggesting that the law is changed to give the Minister more influence in the process.

But the Chamber of Advocates strongly disagreed, arguing that endowing the Minister with more powers would disrupt the several checks and balances in the system and that the student organisations only want to give him more power because "they happen to agree with the minister’s viewpoint and motivated in no uncertain terms by the delay occasioned through this impasse".

"The chamber expresses its support to law graduates who have been waiting for so long to be able to sit for their warrant examinations, however, it cannot subscribe to the shocking suggestion made by the three organisations that an amendment to the law should change the minister’s vires," it said.

"This would do away with the delicate checks and balances which were designed in the system to ensure that the guidelines are a product primarily of the thinking of the profession itself and its regulator, not the political class, and that the latter should only intervene to veto the guidelines in the public interest."

It said short-term solutions will not solve the problem and it is only through constructive dialogue and debate between mature people that the challenge can be overcome.

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