We examined the Venice Commission’s recommendations, sought expert advice, consulted and listened. Now, less than four months into Robert Abela’s tenure as prime minister, we have taken affirmative action to deliver concrete measures that will strengthen Malta’s institutions for years to come.

I will be the first to admit this has not been an easy road.

The need for far-reaching reform had been neglected by successive administrations – and parties on both sides of the divide slipped into a zone of complacent convenience.

Let’s call a spade a spade: our governments drew comfort from exercising control over key appointments in our institutions. And summoning the political will to bring about change was not easy. It required courage and resolve.

Once it became clear our system was not working in the way it was originally intended and that our international reputation was under scrutiny, change was no longer merely desirable; it became a moral imperative. That is why – from the moment I was entrusted with responsibility for the justice portfolio – I was determined, with the full backing of the prime minister, to bring new legislation to parliament in the shortest possible time.

We had already made two pivotal changes in recent months: first, by separating the duties of the attorney general, our state prosecutor, who will no longer be responsible for advising the government on constitutional matters. We have now entrusted this role to the newly-created position of state advocate, Victoria Buttigieg, who was unanimously recommended by the Appointments Commission.

Secondly, we appointed Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti, who commands huge respect, as chief justice following an unprecedented agreement with the opposition.

This was just the start. Our sweeping reforms propose appointing future chief justices only with the approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament – we were pressed for time in Mr Justice Chetcuti’s case due to his predecessor reaching retirement age – and leaving disciplinary matters concerning judges and magistrates in the hands of the Commission for the Administration of Justice. Even there, the attorney general will no longer be present and his/her place will instead be filled by the state advocate.

The procedure for the impeachment of judges, an extremely rare occurrence, will remain the remit of parliament, a practice used in certain other countries which also has the support on the Association of the Judiciary.

The way judicial appointments are made will also change, shifting from the Prime Minister to a new set up Judicial Appointments Committee proposing three names for each vacancy directly to the President of Malta. This is the first time ever that the President will be exercising an executive power by himself.

Half of the committee’s members will be composed of members of the judiciary, with the chief justice presiding and exercising the casting vote where necessary.

Our governments drew comfort from exercising control over key appointments in our institutions- Edward Zammit Lewis

We have strengthened two other pivotal offices of state, handing over to the President of Malta the appointment of the Chair of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption – again following a two-thirds majority in the House – and automatically handing over any findings of corruption to the state prosecutor, as well as proposing to incorporate the terms of appointment and dismissal of the ombudsman in the Constitution and making a binding commitment to debate in parliament all matters raised by his or her office. 

Moreover, members of independent commissions and additional positions are to be appointed by the cabinet – no longer directly by the prime minister – while the appointment of the data protection commissioner will take place only after consultation with the leader of the opposition.

The way in which permanent secretaries are engaged will be reformed as well.

The principal permanent secretary, who is also cabinet secretary, will be appointed by the cabinet of ministers upon consultation with the Public Service Commission. The same commission will recommend a list of permanent secretaries to the president.

We are also seeking to eliminate the long-standing controversy surrounding ‘persons of trust’, by introducing amendments to the Public Administration Act limiting engagements of such personnel to consultants and secretariat staff to ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

It is important to understand that the reforms we have announced are not the end of a root and branch change to the structures that underpin our democracy, but a giant first step that will be complemented by the

Constitutional Convention to be launched by the President of Malta, which will consider further questions concerning the powers vested in the prime minister and whether these should in any way be altered.

Some critics may say we could have gone further. But that would be to ignore the reality that we have gone much further to introduce checks and balances in our system – and decentralise power away from the executive – than any previous government since Malta gained independence in 1964.

Some critics may say they have not been adequately consulted. But that would be to ignore the reality that we have listened intently to a wide range of respected individuals and bodies who offered feedback and addressed their concerns in a very short period of time.

Our ultimate duty as a government, and my responsibility as the minister tasked with this reform, is not to try and please everyone. In a world of diverse opinions that is an impossible task. It is to do the right thing and uphold Malta’s reputation in the international sphere. That is what our reforms set out to do.

Edward Zammit Lewis is Justice Minister.

Correction May 24: The tenth paragraph has been amended following an editorial oversight, to reflect the fact that nominees to judicial posts will be presented to the President, not Cabinet. 

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us