Government, Opposition agree on judicial reforms

Parliament unanimously approves symbolic motion appointing Judge Mark Chetcuti as chief justice • Consensus reached on changes to judicial appointments

Parliament unanimously approved a symbolic motion appointing a new chief justice
Parliament unanimously approved a symbolic motion appointing a new chief justice

The new chief justice Mark Chetcuti will enjoy widespread support after Parliament unanimously approved a motion for his appointment.

The motion is symbolic since current constitutional arrangements do not require parliamentary approval for the appointment of the chief justice. But it forms part of a wider package on judicial changes that has been agreed between the government and the Opposition.

Chetcuti will be replacing Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi, who retires on 8 April.

Chetcuti’s name was agreed upon in what Opposition leader Adrian Delia described as “a 15-minute meeting” with Prime Minister Robert Abela.

The symbolic vote was hailed as a historic moment by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Opposition spokesperson Chris Said who were involved in the talks for judicial reform.

No details were given on the substance of the reforms, but Said indicated that these included the method of appointment of members of the judiciary, the composition of the Judiciary Appointments Committee, the manner by which a call for magistrates and judges is issued and changes in the method of removing members of the judiciary.

The Prime Minister said the agreed reforms will be passed on to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for review.

Abela voiced his satisfaction at the agreement reached with the Opposition after months of talks.

“One of the most divisive issues of the past years is today uniting us. I am proud of this historic moment,” Abela said.

He noted that as prime minister he could have adopted the practice of all his predecessors and appointed a new chief justice without even having the need to consult with the Opposition.

“However, I wanted to do things differently and listed the criteria, which I felt were suitable for a chief justice – integrity, honesty, discipline, hard-working and legal knowhow – and with the Opposition ensured that the selected person fit the bill,” Abela said.

Both sides of the House thanked outgoing Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi and praised Judge Mark Chetcuti.

President George Vella noted with satisfaction the cross-party agreement on the nomination of the new chief justice.

“The President, who presides the Constitutional Reform Commission, augurs that other urgent decisions recommended by the Venice Commission will be agreed by both sides,” the Office of the President said.

Opposition leader Adrian Delia said at a time of crisis, Malta was strengthening its democratic credentials unlike what was happening elsewhere.

The barb was directed at Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has assumed unchecked executive authority.

“We will support changes that ensure the stability of the judiciary thus strengthening this pillar of democracy,” Delia said, adding it was a pity the government did not also opt for parliamentary consensus on the appointment of the police commissioner. 

Zammit Lewis said the agreement between both sides was borne out of “conviction not compromise”, describing PN MP Chris Said as a “formidable interlocutor”.

The praise was reciprocated, with Said describing Zammit Lewis as a person who wanted to unblock the situation.