A Council of Europe body tasked with assessing Maltese proposals to beef up its rule of law mechanisms has welcomed most of the government's ideas but also cautioned that more will be needed to "achieve an adequate system of checks and balances”.
The Venice Commission's 18-page opinion, adopted and published on Friday, spoke positively of proposals concerning judicial appointments, oversight of the judiciary, reforming the office of the attorney general and shifting various powers out of the prime minister's hands.
It however said that there was still room for improvement in other areas, most notably when it came to obliging parliament to act whenever the constitutional court found a law to be unconstitutional.
More power than that proposed would need to be shifted to the president and parliament, it said, to ensure a fully-functional system of checks and balances.
According to the Venice Commission's opinion, published on Friday, Malta's proposals would "certainly decrease the powers" of the Prime Minister. However, it reiterates that more power should be shifted to the President and Parliament, which it said “need to be strengthened”.
To improve checks and balances, the body of constitutional experts are recommending that Malta introduces the election of the Chief Justice by the judges of the Supreme Court if there is no agreement of two-thirds of the MPs for his or her election.
It also believes that parliament must act when a court finds that a law is unconstitutional.
Several proposals 'welcomed'
The Commission said it welcomed several proposals for constitutional and legislative changes proposed by the government, including the election and dismissal of the President through a qualified majority.
It also welcomed the ability of the President to freely choose among three candidates proposed for judicial appointment, making their names public, as well as the introduction of public calls for judicial vacancies.
The addition of two judges and a magistrate to the Judicial Appointments Commission was also welcomed, as was the removal of the Attorney General from the same commission.
'Proposals only part of wider reform'
The Commission warned that the proposals were only part of a wider reform that will be driven by the Constitutional Convention.
“With a guided and structured dialogue opened between all stakeholders, not least civil society, the Convention should look into the overall constitutional design of the country.
“In view of the positive discussions with the Maltese authorities, the Commission hopes and expects that those recommendations of its 2018 opinion, which are not the subject of the current proposals, including on appointments to independent commissions, will be addressed in a satisfactory manner in this process,” the Commission said.
The rule of law experts had first made their concerns known in an opinion in 2018, compiling a report listing recommendations to reform Malta's rule of law, on the request of the Council of Europe.
In May, the government outlined a series of changes Malta would make to address the shortcomings. Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis corresponded with the Commission throughout June and the two sides also held a video-conferencing call on June 12.
A crucial step in the evolution of our democracy - Robert Abela
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Robert Abela called the final opinion "a crucial step in the evolution of our democracy" and said legal texts to introduce the proposed reforms were being drafted.
Abela said the adopted opinion showed how keen Malta was to address deficiencies in its rule of law system.
He said the reforms which the government will be implementing soon were an "unprecedented first set of reforms to strengthen good governance and the judiciary".
The Prime Minister added that the draft laws were ready and will be passing through the parliamentary process as from next week so that the necessary reforms are implemented as quickly as possible.
He said the changes were also expected to improve Malta’s reputation abroad and were crucial to improve the country's robust system of checks and balances.
“It is a process through which the government’s openness to make the necessary changes was welcomed. Now it is up to parliament to implement these reforms into laws that will match our commitment to strengthen our country’s reputation at a European and an international level. Today marks a crucial step in the evolution of our democracy.”