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‘Radical changes’ to judiciary needed – Giovanni Bonello

‘Local judges are thrust into a role they are often ill-trained for’

Former ECHR judge Giovanni Bonello.

Former ECHR judge Giovanni Bonello.

Maltese politicians are “stuck in a colonial mindset” and ignorant of the way judges are appointed in most democratic countries, according to one of the most eminent Maltese judges.

I’ve never met a single Maltese politician who was aware that there’s an alternative way of appointing judges

With two members of the judiciary facing impeachment motions and the memory of two other disgraced judges still fresh in people’s minds, political consensus on the need for judicial reform is at an all-time-high.

But former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello yesterday had some harsh words for local politicians, whom he said were seemingly unwilling to contemplate any radical changes to the judiciary.

Judges in Malta are nomin-ated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the President. They are generally plucked from the legal field.

That differs radically to continental systems, where judges must qualify as such and can only be promoted once they have outdone their peers in exam contexts, Dr Bonello said.

“In most other systems I know, those who intend to make the judiciary their career must join specialised law courses that train them specifically to become judges; they must sit for competitive exams to enter the judiciary and are only promoted following more competitive examinations.”

“Here we are stuck in the colonial mindset. It’s only in Anglo-Saxon systems that judges are nominated at the Prime Minister’s whim. For most other democratic countries, that would be laughable.”

He felt local judges were thrust into a role they were often ill-trained for. “Malta is one of the very few states where a person is hurled into a highly responsible, complex and demanding job, without a day’s previous training for it. What would we say of a system in which a person becomes a neurosurgeon without ever having trained to be one, simply because the Prime Minister says so?” Dr Bonello said.

The former European Court of Human Rights judge made it clear that he was not calling for the existing system to be scrapped. “The continental system has its own problems, too. But what annoys me is that it has never even been considered.

“I’ve never met a single Maltese politician who was aware that there’s an alternative way of appointing judges, practised with varying degrees of success by most democratic countries. Not a single one.”

The PN has said it would like to improve the existing system, while Opposition leader Joseph Muscat has said that, if elected, he will ensure judicial reform is in place by the end of 2013.

Dr Bonello hoped that would happen, but worried it would all amount to very little.

“Wishful thinking about judicial reform has been around for the past 2,000 years. Everyone wants to reform the courts, but, before committing oneself either way, it’s important to know what tangible measures are being proposed.”

He was irked by the narrow parameters in which talk of reform was often framed.

“People act as though the Anglo-American system is the only one and that there aren’t any alternatives.”

The UK is a case in point. Until 2005, judges there were appointed in much the same way as they are in Malta. Nowadays, a 12-person independent committee screens and examines judicial candidates before putting forward its nominations to Westminster.

A slightly similar proposal was included in a draft Administrative Code issued by parliament’s select committee on the re-codification of laws last May. It suggests creating a 10-person board to nominate judicial candidates. The board would be made up of five lay members, two judges and three ministerial appointees.

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