Updated 6pm, adds Parliamentary vote, debate

Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti is to be nominated chief justice following an unprecedented agreement between the government and opposition.

His nomination is was moved in a joint motion between the government and the opposition in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

He will succeed Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi, who is due to retire within a few weeks upon turning 65, having been appointed two years ago.

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said on Wednesday that Azzopardi's nomination had been agreed upon by cabinet, with the opposition having also agreed.   

The chief justice is appointed by the President acting in accordance with the advice of the prime minister after consulting with the leader of the opposition. A judiciary appointment committee, which is made up of the Chief Justice, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the President of the Chamber of Advocates, will have already issued written advice to the government on who should take on the chief justice role.

Cabinet members were taken by surprise on Wednesday morning when media reports touting Mr Justice Chetcuti’s nomination were first published, with ministers saying they found it odd that the press was informed of such an important decision before they were.  

Mr Justice Chetcuti, 62, was appointed judge in 2010 after practising as a lawyer for nearly 30 years.  

Last year he presided the constitutional court in a case contesting the manner of appointment of judges and magistrates and decided to make a preliminary reference to the European Court of Justice.

Before being made a judge, Chetcuti was a member of the Refugees Appeals Board and a chairman of the Controlled Companies Appeals Board.

Mr Justice Chetcuti drew praise for his first address from the Bench in 2010 when he stressed that judges and magistrates should not abuse their position with “censorable behaviour” because it would reflect negatively on the rest of the judiciary.

“The dignity and authority expected from members of the judiciary should come together in the integrity of their behaviour at work and in all other aspects of their life,” Mr Justice Chetcuti said.

He pointed out that judges and magistrates could not be anything but prepared in the use and application of the law and resolute and strong in their behaviour in and outside court.

Any “censorable behaviour” negatively affected the other members of the judiciary. Society should consider judges and magistrates protectors of its rights.

In short, he added, judges and magistrates did not earn respect because of their social standing but because of the manner in which they behaved and the just way in which they applied the law. 

Beginning of a change of culture 

Civil Society group Repubblika wished Mr Justice Chetcuti well and noted that he had handed down a judgement, subsequently confirmed on appeal, confirming the people's right to contest the manner of appointment of members of the judiciary. He had also referred the case to the European Court from where a decision was being awaited. 

It appeared that the government had upheld the advice of the judiciary appointments committee and the prime minister had not imposed his decision in the courts, as happened in the past. 

The group said it was pleased that its own arguments in court had led to the beginning of a change of culture which was so important for democracy. It hoped the government would now opt for a national debate on the judicial appointments system to guarantee the independence of the judiciary.

President welcomes agreement

In a statement in the afternoon, the President welcomed the agreement reached between both sides of the House and hoped that other urgent decisions, such as those recommended by the Venice Commission, would also find unanimous support.

Parliamentary debate

Prime Minister Robert Abela hailed the appointment as a giant step forward, as it signalled consensus on a matter which in recent years had been at the heart of disagreement between government and Opposition.

“We conveyed an unprecedented signal and this is a historic day for Malta,” the prime minister said. 

“I decided not to push ahead and use the powers vested to me by the Constitution,” he said.

On Mr Justice Chetcuti, Abela said he epitomised the qualities required for such role - integrity, honesty, hard work and strong legal knowledge. 

The Prime Minister said the motion also signalled the agreement reached with the Opposition on the new mechanism for the appointment on magistrates and judges. The proposed changes have been sent to the group of experts on the rule of law of the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, for their feedback. 

Opposition leader Adrian Delia echoed the remarks on the historic significance of the appointment. 

“This is no change in form but in substance. The change is not about the candidate in question but the fact that the appointment was made between government and Opposition,” Delia said. 

He thanked President George Vella who is presiding the steering committee for constitutional changes and urged the prime minister to take a step further, this time on the police commissioner, who, he said, should be appointed with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Ironically, the Bill outlining changes in the mechanism being proposed by the government under which the police commissioner will be appointed by a simple majority was approved in the same sitting.

Parliament rose for the Easter recess and will meet again on April 20.

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