Mental health commissioner looking into controversial lawyer warrant guidelines

Committee does not respond to Justice Minister’s concerns over controversial guidelines to declare mental health status for lawyer warranting

The mental health commissioner is looking into controversial guidelines that require lawyers to divulge physical or mental health problems to obtain their warrant.

Denis Vella Baldacchino said he will be seeking a meeting with the committee that drew up the ‘fit and proper test’ to understand the reasoning behind the guidelines and questionnaire that lawyers have to fill.

The committee for lawyers and legal procurators is headed by former chief justice Silvio Camilleri, which falls under the purview of the Commission for the Administration of Justice, a constitutional body. It was set up after changes to the law last year.

“I want to understand the committee’s reasoning behind such guidelines and the relative questionnaire that lawyers have to fill. I have to make sure that there is no discrimination against anyone who discloses any such personal information,” Vella Baldacchino told MaltaToday.

The proposed test is at the heart of a stand-off between the committee and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard, who is objecting to some of the invasive questions. The guidelines have to be approved by the minister.

Attard told parliament last week that he sent back the guidelines with some observations and changes.

The impasse is holding back the warranting process for more than 100 lawyers and legal procurators, who are oblivious as to what the test contains.

The Justice Minister told this newspaper on Friday that he has not received feedback from the committee to changes he has proposed.

“Unfortunately, the Committee for Lawyers and Procurators has not replied back to the reservations raised and changes proposed by the ministry,” Attard said.

The minister called an urgent meeting last week with law student organisations, representatives of the law faculty at the university and the University Students’ Council, to keep them abreast of developments.

“During the meeting, I gave an overview of the situation and there was agreement on the concerns raised by the ministry over the guidelines,” Attard said. “I am willing to take every step possible to not only ensure that this fit and proper test is concluded successfully, but also that the awarding ceremony for warrants is held as quickly as possible.”

The test, seen by MaltaToday, contains a section on health issues in which lawyers are expected to declare current and past physical or mental health problems spanning a 10-year period.

Another probing question is whether they have a drug, alcohol or gambling addiction, or whether they had one in the previous 10 years, irrespective of whether they have recovered.

The revelations have raised eyebrows among lawyers who cannot complete their warranting process. Lawyers have to take written and oral exams before filling in the new fit and proper questionnaire.

The written and oral components of the warranting process were completed a couple of months ago and lawyers are now waiting for the latest impasse to be resolved.

“We have absolutely no idea what this fit and proper test contains but it is disquieting to learn, thanks to the newspaper, that it requires us to declare any mental or physical issues,” one lawyer told MaltaToday.

Divulging personal health matters should be at applicant’s discretion

Opposition justice spokesperson Karol Aquilina said he does not have visibility of the draft guidelines but expressed confidence that the committee is carrying out its duties “diligently and professionally and that its proposals are meant to elevate the standards of the legal profession and improve the administration of justice”.

Aquilina said he expected the ministry to publish the guidelines for public consultation. Basing his comments on what has been reported by MaltaToday, Aquilina said most of the questions appear to be in line with the discussions held during the parliamentary process leading to the setting up of the Committee for Advocates and Legal Procurators.

“However, it is to be noted that the fit and proper test was always intended to be a benchmark and not an exam one has to pass. On this basis, it would be ludicrous to request applicants to specifically mention any medical or psychological conditions they suffer from when applying for their warrant. The ultimate responsibility on whether such information is passed on to the committee at application stage should be entirely at the applicant’s discretion,” Aquilina said.