Rule of law NGO Repubblika has filed a judicial protest seeking to stop the government from naming any new judges or magistrates under a system of appointments it says threatens the judiciary’s independence.
In its protest, Repubblika says the current appointments system hinges on the “absolute discretion” of the Prime Minister and breaches Malta’s obligations under EU treaties, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights and Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.
The protest, lodged against Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, comes as the government is expected to name three new magistrates and three new judges in the coming weeks.
Repubblika cited the recent Venice Commission report, which said the Prime Minister should have no power to influence judicial appointments, as “this would open the door to potential political influence, which is not compatible with modern notions of independence of the judiciary”.
In one of its chief recommendations, the Commission had said vetted and ranked applicants for magistrates or judges should be recommended by the Judicial Appointments Committee “directly to the President”.
Repubblika said in its judicial protest that despite reforms implemented in 2016, effective authority remained in the Prime Minister’s hands, undermining the independence of the judiciary.
This, it said, threatened the fundamental right to a fair hearing as well as the legal order of the EU, as Maltese courts had a central role in the application of the Union’s laws.
More than half of the judiciary would have been replaced in the past six years
It said the government had made clear that it was not ready to reform the system before the upcoming judicial appointments.
“The government should immediately desist from appointing or nominating new members of the judiciary until the words and spirit of the Venice Commission report are effectively implemented with the requisite constitutional amendments,” it said.
Repubblika also referenced infringement proceedings currently underway against Poland over its own system of judicial appointments – arguing that the same legal principles applied – and the interim measures put in place to prevent the Polish government from making further appointments until the case is concluded.
The judicial protest is signed by lawyers Simon Busuttil, the former Opposition leader, and Jason Azzopardi, a Nationalist Party MP, on behalf of Repubblika members Marion Pace Asciak, Robert Aquilina, Vicki Ann Cremona, Simon Sansone, Pia Zammit and Manuel Delia.
The Times of Malta reported earlier this week that three judges and three magistrates would be named in the coming weeks despite repeated promises by the government to change the “outdated system” of appointments.
Sources said magistrates Aaron Bugeja, Joanne Vella Cuschieri and Francesco Depasquale were expected to become superior court judges while Nadine Lia, Bridgette Sultana and Victor Asciak would be named magistrates.
These appointments mean more than half of the judiciary would have been replaced in the past six years. The Prime Minister and the Justice Minister have repeatedly said they would implement changes to the current system “soon”, however, these have yet to happen.