As a nation, we have faced several challenges of late, especially related to COVID-19, but the government’s drive to bring about positive change has continued apace. This administration has worked tirelessly to minimise the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic both in terms of health and also the economy.
In view of my portfolio as minister for justice, equality and governance, I remain fully focused on strengthening good governance and the rule of law by implementing effectively legislation and reforms that improve our institutional and justice system. This is why my work to date involved passing reforms, that are unprecedented and historic in nature, through parliament, not least those bolstering the independence of the judiciary. All of these legislative efforts were also positively received by European institutions, among which the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.
We made significant changes to the method of the appointment and removal of members of the bench after years of procrastination and inaction by previous administrations.
The revision of these processes began in 2016. This initiative, however, picked up a decisive pace over the past 13 months and we can now state with confidence that we have severely curtailed any possible influence of the executive and politicians on the process of judicial appointments and removal. This is a first for Malta and a step in the right direction.
Moreover, through Act LV of 2020, we also raised the retirement age of members of the judiciary from 65 to 68 and that is at the discretion of the individual judges or magistrates. This has been a decision which was long overdue and has, undoubtedly, increased the breadth of experience and wisdom of the bench.
I will continue to work to ensure our citizens have access to courts that administer fair and transparent justice within a reasonable time
Another first: judges and magistrates are now appointed following a public call and members of the judiciary are now nominated not by politicians, as happened before, but by their own peers. The process is intended to further ensure impartiality and strengthen the independence of the judiciary.
By adding new members to the bench, the government will ensure that our courts better address the backlog of cases, particularly the Court of Appeal (Superior Jurisdiction), the Family Court and expedite criminal prosecutions and magisterial inquiries. This is a factor that has hampered our justice system for many years, an issue we need to address head-on.
The public will be the ultimate beneficiary of this change.
Let me be clear: the majority of our judiciary have been nothing short of diligent, pronouncing researched and fair judgments. In no way will these reforms reduce the credibility and impartiality of the members who currently sit on the bench. Actually, the opposite is the case.
However, we cannot turn a deaf ear to constructive criticism and effecting positive change is clearly our duty.
Having institutions that deliver is in everyone’s interest: from the public, to the judiciary, to politicians and, ultimately, our country.
There is always room to do better because we can do better. It is through determination and resilience to do better that we are managing to achieve the positive results on a consistent basis.
We have also been receiving positive feedback for our reforms from international organisations, some of which have long been our critics.
In October 2020, the Venice Commission warmly welcomed “the implementation of the proposals for legislative reform as an important step in the right direction”. This was confirmed time and again by other established bodies, including the European Commission and Moody’s. Moody’s International has gone to outline that Malta has institutions which are “balanced by a very strong governance profile”.
It is this progression that gives me satisfaction and fills me with determination and resolve to work even harder to bring about more reforms and positive results for my country.
That has undoubtedly been the hallmark of the Robert Abela administration.
I will continue to work to ensure our citizens have access to courts that administer fair and transparent justice and, most importantly, within a reasonable time. This will be my main focus, that is, striking the right balance between quality and efficiency.
Appointing eight new members of the judiciary, for the first time via a public call leading to the largest judicial complement in history, has been a significant step forward but it was also the beginning of a long-term process and journey wherein I need everyone on board, including the judiciary. We intend to press ahead with broader reforms to make our country an even better place for all our citizens.
Edward Zammit Lewis is Minister for Justice.
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