'We need to show that institutions are working' - Justice Minister defends controversial Interpretation Act

The controversial bill could allow any fines issued by a regulatory authority to be interpreted as a criminal punishment

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis defended the amendment to the Interpretation Act, currently in its second reading at parliamentary level.

In his parliamentary address, Zammit Lewis said that the bill allows for the proper functioning of fine-imposing institutions, in turn preventing these bodies from having to go to court over administrative sums. 

"We need to show that our institutions are working," he said.

The Minister clarified that the bill helps clear up uncertainty over offences, as it provides definitions for a what a criminal charge is and stipulates that court access should be guaranteed from the start of the administrative penalisation process. 

"Apart from this, there is the general right that you can take an institution to court if you feel that you've been aggravated by the process," he elaborated. 

In retaliation, Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina mentioned that fees exceeding a certain amount should generally be considered as a fine of a criminal nature. 

"We're talking about thousands of euro. When you charge someone this amount, you put them in a situation where they can't more forward," he argued.

Therese Comidini Cachia, also a Nationalist MP, was scathing in her remarks, saying that the bill shouldn't have been brought for a second reading in the first place.

"I'm sure there are members of government who know what harm this will do - they should be allowed to vote on this amendment," she said.

The bill has sparked strong controversy, both by the Nationalist Party and among legal experts, who contend that the amendment is unconstitutional.

Under the bill, any fines issued by a public authority excersising a regulatory or enforcement function, such as the FIAU or Malta Gaming Authority, may be interpreted as a criminal punishment. In addition, the act which led to the fine could be interpreted as a criminal act. 

There are exceptions - the fine will not be interpreted as so if the person has been granted an opportunity to bring forward their defence, or if the offence does not result in imprisonment or detention. 

Further exceptions include where the infringement does not result in a criminal record, if it is subject to appeal to a court on points of law or fact, and if an appeal to a court has already been filed.