‘Lawyers do not make good ministers’ – former judge backs Cabinet technocrats

Giovanni Bonello calls for AG office to be split between government advisor and public prosecutor roles, decries conservatism as 'the enemy of the law' 

Retired judge Giovanni Bonello
Retired judge Giovanni Bonello

Retired judge Giovanni Bonello has thrown his weight behind the Prime Minister’s call for a constitutional amendment to allow technocrats who are not MPs to be appointed as ministers.

Speaking on radio programme Ghandi Xi Nghid, Bonello said that lawyers do not usually make ideal ministers, as they tend to lack managerial skills.

“Ministers should ideally be managers who know their portfolio inside and out, and I have serious reservations on how well lawyers can occupy managerial roles,” he told host Andrew Azzopardi.

“Do careers of dealing with litigation, contracts and testaments grant lawyers the necessary skills to lead complex structures that require them to deal with frequent time bombs? We [lawyers] excel in many areas, but management is simply not one of them.”

Muscat’s opinion on technocrats was quoted in David Attard’s ‘The Maltese Legal System Volume Two, Constitutional and Human Rights Law’, and it echoes calls by his predecessor Lawrence Gonzi.

“Malta would benefit from an American system where ministers are elected from outside the legislature and Parliament should seriously consider this proposal,” he said.

‘Attorney General stuck in a schizophrenic position’

Not one to mince his words, Giovanni Bonello warned that the Attorney General is currently stuck in a “schizophrenic” role – at the same time government’s legal advisor and the director of the office of the prosecutor.

“No matter how brilliant the AG is, he cannot be expected to keep switching hats from an advisor serving as government’s client to a public prosecutor who is supposed to act independently from government,” he said.

He added that the AG must, in some delicate political cases, act as both government advisor and public prosecutor at the same time.

 “While I don’t have enough information at hand to cite specific cases of conflict of interest, the appearance out there is that the poor AG is stuck in continuous conflict between two roles – one that is completely dependent on government and another that is supposed to be independent.”

Indeed, the splitting of the two roles was one of 450 proposals for judicial reform that were presented to government at the end of 2013 by a commission spearheaded by Bonello.

The commission was set up in the first place by justice minister Owen Bonnici, and indeed Bonello praised the minister as a man who “possesses the will to cure the illness at the heart of the judicial system”.

However, he was pessimistic at the chances that all of his proposals will eventually be implemented, as some “go against the grain of privileges and prerogatives that have been set in stone for centuries”.

“It’s very difficult to try and reform things that have become entrenched in the system, and lawyers are naturally conservative,” he said. “However, I consider the law and the Constitution to be alive and flexible, and I look at conservatism as the enemy of the law.”

Bonello’s commission has notablu proposed that the power to appoint judges and magistrates be taken out of the justice minister’s hands and into those of the Commission for the Administration of Justice.

“Malta is the only country in the democratic world where politicians get to appoint judges, and the country’s judicial appointment system hasn’t changed an inch since the days of Grandmaster Pinto [in the 1700s],” he said. “Magistrates and judges are by nature supposed to be completely independent, and yet they must be approved by politicians if they want to get elected to their posts or advance in their judicial careers.”

He insisted that politicians have on the whole attempted to nominate the best possible choices to the bench, but warned that the country’s past has since Pinto’s reign been peppered by judges and magistrates who were nominated for “purely political reasons”.

‘No way must Caruana Galizia be forced to reveal her sources’

The retired judge also weighed in on a court request by energy minister Konrad Mizzi’s lawyers to force blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia to reveal the sources behind her allegation that the minister was having an affair with his communications coordinator.

“[Their request] is an absolute non-starter, and society must realize that it benefits greatly from the legal protection granted to journalists’ sources.”

He dismissed claims by the lawyers that Caruana Galizia is “not a journalist when writing on her blog”, insisting that “a journalist is anyone who habitually uses a means of communication to express their opinion and to relate facts on current affairs to the public”.

“It should not even pass through anyone’s head to force journalists, no matter who they are, to reveal their sources.”