Updated 7.22pm with PN reaction below

Six new members of the judiciary were sworn in on Thursday afternoon in spite of a court decree accepting to hear with urgency an application for the appointments to be halted.

The application was filed in the First Hall of the Civil Court in the morning by civil society activists Repubblika.

The court was asked to intervene with urgency to stop the appointments until a new system is introduced ensuring the judiciary’s independence. A revamp of the system was promised by the government years ago.

In a decree, Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti accepted to hear the case with urgency and gave the Prime Minster until the end of the court’s business on Friday to file its reply. He also declared he will be hearing the case with urgency on Monday.

Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale. Photo: Matthew MirabelliMr Justice Francesco Depasquale. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Soon after the court case was presented, the Department of Information issued an announcement stating that President George Vella would be presiding over the swearing-in of the new judges and magistrates.

In a statement in the morning, the government confirmed reports by Times  of Malta last month that Cabinet had approved the promotion of three magistrates - Francesco Depasquale, Aaron Bugeja and Joanne Vella Cuschieri to judges and the appointment of three lawyers - Nadine Lia, Victor Asciak and Bridgette Sultana to magistrates.

In a statement, Repubblika said the government had publicly acknowledged the findings of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, that the present method of appointing judges meant the judiciary was not independent. The government had also publicly committed itself to change the method of appointing judges to guarantee judicial independence.

The organisation said that despite its promises, the government was appointing six new people to the bench using a system it had already admitted amounted to undue interference of the government on the judicial system.

Repubblika said the case should get to the European Court of Justice that was currently examining the interference of the Polish government in the country’s judiciary and had ordered Poland not to appoint new judges until the case was closed.

Justice Joanne Vella CuschieriJustice Joanne Vella Cuschieri

President calls for changes in judiciary appointments ‘as soon as possible’

President George Vella called for constitutional changes according to the recommendations of the Venice Commission “as soon as possible” during Thursday's ceremony.

Read: Better checks and balances needed to ensure rule of law - Venice Commission

In a direct reference to the recent Council of Europe recommendation, which the government accepted but did not implement, Dr Vella said that following changes in 2016, the government must now move as quickly as possible to implement further changes to assure the independence of the judiciary.

While acknowledging that these changes need the support of two thirds of parliament, he urged the government and all those involved to implement the changes without further delay.

Repubblika’s court case was filed by Prof. Vicki Ann Cremona and signed by lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Simon Busuttil.

Mr Justice Aaron Bugeja.Mr Justice Aaron Bugeja.

Ministry: Busuttil, Azzopardi opposing system they used and approved in the past

The Ministry of Justice in a reaction Dr Busuttil and Dr Azzopardi themselves, in Parliament, back in 2016 voted in favour of the same method of appointment with which new members of the judiciary were now being sworn in.

"More so, through their actions, the two Opposition MPs are saying that all members of the judiciary who were appointed by successive governments, including that which they used to form part of and using a system which was less transparent than the present one, are not impartial or independent. This is an unprecedented fierce attack on the Judiciary."

The ministry pointed out that judicial appointments now follow written advice from the Judiciary Appointment Committee which is made up of the Chief Justice, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the President of the Chamber of Advocates.

"Both Busuttil and Azzopardi had voted in favour and approved this system which is more transparent than that which had been utilised by the various governments until then. This new system was also described as a positive step forward by the Venice Commission."

"It is bewildering how the two Opposition MPs are against the use of the method which they had themselves voted in favour."

PN Reaction - government determined to have total control of the institutions

In a reaction, the Nationalist Party criticised the government for going ahead with the appointments to the judiciary without first bringing into force the recommendations of the Venice Commission for the judiciary to be truly independent. Furthermore, no consultation was made with the Opposition, something the commission had recommended.

The government had acted in a manner aimed at ensuring it would have control over the judicial system, Opposition leader Adrian Delia said.  

He said the Opposition would not tolerate a situation where rule of law reforms were nullified before even being introduced.

Nor would the Opposition consent to fictitious reforms which would still leave the government in total control.

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