Judicial appointments committee turns down Cabinet request for magistrate’s promotion

The committee charged with examining requests by the Prime Minister for promotions to judge stopped magistrate Micallef Stafrace's promotion

Magistrate Yana Micallef Stafrace
Magistrate Yana Micallef Stafrace

The magistrate Yana Micallef Stafrace will not be promoted to judge, after the judicial appointments committee deemed her tenure as magistrate was too short to merit promotion.

Micallef Stafrace, 57, was appointed magistrate in 2017 but since then has been recommended for promotion to judge by the Prime Minister.

The judicial appointments committee is charged with examining requests by the Prime Minister for the promotion of magistrates to the superior courts.

Micallef Stafrace was one of two magistrates recommended for promotion, the other being Francesco Depasquale, 49, who was appointed magistrate in 2011 and assigned all libel and defamation cases. “She was not turned down, but the committee felt not enough time had elapsed in her role as magistrate to merit promotion to the superior court, so it did not recommend promotion,” a source told this newspaper.

The committee that scrutinises candidates for the judiciary is composed of the Ombudsman and the Auditor General, as well as the Chief Justice, Attorney General and the president of the Chamber of Advocates President.

Until 2016, the Prime Minister was free to recommend any person to the President of Malta for judicial appointment. With the introduction of the JAC, interested lawyers may express their interest at any moment, and the JAC vets them and includes suitable candidates in a permanent register. When a vacancy comes up, the Prime Minister is free to choose – for appointment as judge – any person from that register or from among the sitting magistrates.

The JAC has regularly turned down requests for appointments to the inferior courts from lawyers. Even when magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera, sister to a Labour minister, was cleared for promotion to judge, she was kept behind because senior judges disagreed with her move to the superior courts. Unsurprisingly, she was made judge after the retirement of Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri.

The creation of the JAC has been hailed as a move in the right direction, but the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission insists that the Prime Minister should not have any influence in judiciary picks, and that the JAC rank its candidates upon merit or clear criteria.

As more members of the judiciary reach retirement age, which is mandatory at 65, critics feel that more ‘red togas’ will make the grade to even out the partisan distribution of the bench.

Almost all of the recent appointments, including those mandated by the JAC, included former Labour candidates or officials: Toni Abela was a former Labour deputy leader; Wenzu Mintoff a former Labour Whip, candidate and party official; Joanne Vella Cuschieri a former candidate; Monika Vella a former Labour mayor; and Joseph Mifsud a former party official.

Another lawyer tipped for promotion in this latest round will be Nadine Lia, the daughter-in-law of Labour Party counsel Pawlu Lia.

The former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello has hit out at this trend, remarking that of the last 17 appointments to Malta’s judiciary, 16 were all relatives of party politicians, or ministerial associates. Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has said that under the upcoming judicial reform, the Prime Minister will no longer be appointing members to the bench, and a Judicial Appointments Committee will instead be doing so.