Standards Commissioner again cautions ministers over use of DOI for partisan ends

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici’s statement on a case filed by Repubblika to block judicial appointments did not breach ethics but he should have avoided dig at lawyers Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi, Standards Commissioner rules

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici

A statement by Owen Bonnici last April on a case initiated by Repubblika to block judicial appointments was not in breach of ministerial ethics, the Standards Commissioner has ruled.

However, the Justice Minister’s dig at two lawyers representing the NGO was “unnecessary” and “came dangerously close to crossing the line” of partisan politics, the commissioner said.

The issue concerns a statement issued by Bonnici through the Department of Information, government’s official communication channel.

The case revolves around a constitutional case initiated by Repubblika to block several judicial appointments. Repubblika was represented in court by lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Simon Busuttil, both of who are Nationalist Party MPs.

Reacting to the development, the Justice Minister issued a statement in which he also took a dig at the two lawyers. Bonnici criticised the lawyers for taking up a case against a system they had voted for as MPs, three years earlier.

Lawyer Andrew Borg Cardona filed a complaint over Bonnici’s remarks with Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, asking whether the “political nature” of the comments were “fit and proper use” by the minister of the DOI, a public funded entity.

In his decision communicated to the media this morning, Hyzler ruled that the “tone” used by the Justice Minister in the press release was “not one that gives rise to any concern from an ethical point of view”.

Hyzler said the content of the statement concerned a decision of the constitutional court, and hence a matter of public interest and government policy rather than a partisan issue.

However, Hyzler said the minister “would have been more in order” had he refrained from including within the press release a reference that the lawyers concerned had themselves voted in favour of the 2016 constitutional amendments.

“This comment was beyond the purpose of the press release and could be construed as an attempt to score political points since it appears to have been designed to damage the credibility of the two lawyers concerned,” he said.

The Standards Commissioner said the lawyers “may justifiably feel aggrieved” by the comment and the minister’s failure to distinguish between their responsibility as lawyers and their parliamentary duties.

Hyzler insisted that court cases belonged to the litigants and not their lawyers but cautioned lawyers from seeking publicity for the cases they participate in because this will fuel the perception that lawyers identify themselves with the cause.

“Lawyers active in politics should be particularly sensitive to this peril,” he cautioned.

Hyzler also advised ministers to avoid using the DOI for statements intended to score party-political points.

This was the second such caution in as many months by the Standards Commissioner.

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