Rule of law experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission have been asked to give the government advice on a contentious legal amendment that critics say is unconstitutional.

The expert body will give the government its opinion on amendments to the Interpretation Act that have drawn fire from legal scholars, politicians and lobby groups.

In a statement announcing its decision to turn to the Council of Europe body for advice, the government said it had done so “in the spirit of dialogue and with a strong desire to improve the rule of law and good governance.”

The amendment proposed by the government would allow administrative fines to be imposed by any public officer or authority and in the process redefine the meaning of a ‘criminal offence’. Currently, such fines can only be imposed by a court of law.

Critics, including constitutional law scholars, say the amendment would do away with due process and impinge on people’s right to a fair hearing, as people or companies could end up being fined huge amounts without any form of redress.

The Chamber of Advocates has warned that redefining a criminal office would also impact people’s right to protection of law under the Maltese Constitution.  

“The rights currently enjoyed by any person under that article will be completely removed in certain instances which would otherwise have been enjoyed,” the chamber said.

Critics have also accused the government of trying to pass the amendment by stealth as a legal notice, after an initial attempt to amend the Constitutional to include it fell short.

The government has defended the amendment by arguing that it seeks to address a legal grey area and give regulatory bodies certainty when dishing out fines while easing pressures from the law courts.

In its statement on Saturday, the government said that it was not interested in turning the matter into a partisan issue but noted that the Opposition had not proposed any suitable alternatives to the proposal.

“In the absence of suitable alternatives, the Opposition risks paralysing supervisory authorities,” it said, as it urged the Opposition to discuss the matter in good faith.

Recommendations made in 2018 by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission were used as the basis of several legislative changes introduced over the past few years. The Commission has welcomed those changes, while noting that more work is needed to ensure a fully functional system of checks and balances.

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