Judicial salaries to increase in pre-election reform

Shadow minister Jason Azzopardi says nominating female magistrates and judges for the sole sake of gender balance on the bench 'a disservice to women's rights' 

Justice minister Owen Bonnici and Opposition counterpart Jason Azzopardi on Reporter
Justice minister Owen Bonnici and Opposition counterpart Jason Azzopardi on Reporter
Justice minister Owen Bonnici and Opposition counterpart Jason Azzopardi on Reporter
Justice minister Owen Bonnici and Opposition counterpart Jason Azzopardi on Reporter
Justice minister Owen Bonnici and Opposition counterpart Jason Azzopardi on Reporter
Justice minister Owen Bonnici and Opposition counterpart Jason Azzopardi on Reporter

An upcoming judicial reform before the next election will include improved financial packages for magistrates and judges, justice minister Owen Bonnici said.

Speaking on Monday night's edition of Reporter, Bonnici said that he intends to revamp the controversial judicial appointment system, but only as part of a "holistic" overhaul of the judiciary that will include higher salaries and pensions to the judiciary and more powers to the Commission for the Administration of Justice.”

“Nobody can criticise the integrity or legal knowledge possessed by the 11 judges and magistrates that I have nominated to the bench throughout my tenure as justice minister,” Bonnici said. “However, improving the financial packages of the judiciary is likely to boost the perception of their integrity.”

At one point during the debate, shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi told Bonnici that “there are far more competent female lawyers” he could have nominated as magistrates than Ingrid Zammit Young and Caroline Farrugia Frendo.

However, the minister questioned whether the lawyers he had in mind were willing to become magistrates, to which Azzopardi retorted that “it is impossible that [Zammit Young and Farrugia Frendo] were the only two female lawyers interested in the role. 

The Labour government has come under recent pressure over the nomination of two lawyers to the judiciary. One of them, Employment Commissioner Ingrid Zammit Young, withdrew her nomination after the Commission for the Administration of Justice warned of a possible impediment in that people aren't eligible as magistrates until three years after the termination of public office. 

On Reporter, Bonnici dismissed Azzopardi’s claims that the government has shelved a report on judicial reform drafted by Giovanni Bonello, arguing that he has already refined civil procedures as recommended by the retired judge. 

“Only a small part of Bonello’s 405 judiciary recommendations concern revamping the system of judicial appointments,” he said. "When the time comes to discuss judicial reform in parliament, the sector should be debated from all angles and not only from that of reforming the way they are appointed."

However, Jason Azzopardi insisted that an instant revamp in the judicial appointment has become urgent in light of the two most recent nominations, and indeed urged Bonnici to temporarily freeze new selections until the reform passes into law.

“The Constitution was never breached when previous Nationalist administrations nominated magistrates and judges, and not a single one of the eleven judiciary nominated by [former PN justice ministers] Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Chris Said were controversial.

“Previous Nationalist ministers had always consulted with the Labour Opposition and the Chamber of Advocates before nominating people to the judiciary, but consultation has stopped under this government.

Azzopardi also noted that Bonnici has not yet denied a MaltaToday report that the magisterial nomination of Farrugia Frendo was intended as a sop to her father, Speaker Anglu Farrugia, who had wanted to be elected as Malta’s representative on the European Court of Auditors.

Bonnici fired back on all three charges – dismissing claims that the Constitution had been breached as a “blatant lie”, citing the Speaker as having denied exerting pressure for his daughter to be nominated as magistrate, and claiming that his failure to consult with the Opposition stemmed from the PN’s “negativity”.

‘Nominations on basis of gender disservice to women’– Azzopardi

When asked at the start of the programme about the rationale behind his nomination of Zammit Young and Farrugia Frendo, Bonnici invoked a feminist argument.

“I wanted more women in the judiciary,” he said. “When I was appointed minister, only 35% of the judges and magistrates were women, but the figure has now risen by around 10%”.

However, Jason Azzopardi retorted that selecting women on their basis of their gender rather than their merit is “a great disservice to women’s rights”.

“The judicial sector is far too delicate and appointments must be sexless and based purely on merit,” he said.

He cited a clause within a private members’ bill put forward by the Opposition, that would require new judges and magistrates to have 15 years' legal experience – including 10 in court - up from the current 12 for judges and seven for magistrates.

This would mean that the minimum age for new judges and magistrates would increase to around 41, which would effectively rule out 33-year-old Caroline Farrugia Frendo.

“Magisterial responsibility has increased over the years, and whereas they were once only allowed to hand out maximum three years’ imprisonment sentences, they can now sentence people to up to twelve years in jail. People deserve to have their cases heard by a magistrate with vast legal experience.”  

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