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All about change and... shock

Video: Darrin Zammit Lupi

He was involved in what is possibly the quickest Cabinet reshuffle in recent history. After 100 days Justice Parliamentary Secretary Owen Bonnici speaks to Kurt Sansone about judicial reform and Lou Bondì.

After only 100 days you have gone from being answerable to Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia to the Prime Minister. What happened?

This Government was elected on a pledge to reform the law courts and I am committed to see this through

The Government heard criticism that it would have been better to separate the home affairs and justice portfolios... that’s how it was originally because I used to take care of justice and Dr Mallia was responsible for home affairs. But we continued receiving this criticism that it would have been better to transfer justice to a different ministry.

This was the Labour Party’s policy even before the election. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to split the portfolio at the start of the legislature?

The Prime Minister wanted two individuals taking care of the portfolios. In this way the portfolios were politically distinct but the criticism persisted and we felt the split should go the whole way.

Who was criticising the Administration?

There were various people from the legal profession and even in the political sphere who criticised us.

Our sources said there was friction between Dr Mallia and yourself, which made it difficult for both of you to start working well.

I used to meet Dr Mallia every Monday and we had a very good working relationship because he took care of home affairs and I was responsible for justice. It was only natural for me to inform him beforehand of what I was going to do. Dr Mallia is a politically respectable gentleman but we felt that it would be better if the portfolios were kept separate.

Was there any pressure from Dr Mallia on you to do things differently?

Absolutely not. Dr Mallia has the advantage of being a very experienced lawyer. Apart from me informing him as a minister, I also consulted him as a respectable lawyer the same way I will continue doing even now.

So there was nothing between you.

No. There is this thing in politics that presumes something must have happened to explain any small change.

But the change happened after only 100 days: this is why the question was raised. Reshuffles normally happen after two years.

There were no problems... Joseph Muscat is different to his predecessor. I know Joseph Muscat well. He is results driven and if he feels something has to be done he gets down to do it immediately.

A commission led by Giovanni Bonello that you set up to propose a blueprint for judicial reform released its first report recently. It did not go down too well with the Chief Justice, who publicly lamented that members of the judiciary were not consulted. Why was the judiciary ignored?

The Chief Justice had said he expected the judiciary to be consulted by the commission before releasing the report. We allowed the commission to self-regulate its work. I do not tell the commission what to do. There is no recommendation in that report which I pushed for. The commission drew up the report for discussion, so much so that when it was released Dr Bonello said these were a list of proposals aimed at stimulating discussion, which it did.

After a period of consultation the commission will draw up a final report by the end of October. There will be another report on particular themes such as the Gozo court, the family court and legal aid. But the commission had a consultation meeting with the judiciary last Tuesday and I am informed by members of the judiciary it was a very positive meeting.

Did the Chief Justice’s criticism surprise you?

Absolutely not, because the Chief Justice had sent me a letter a couple of days before in which he lamented the lack of consultation. I had answered, telling him that the commission worked independently of the parliamentary secretariat – it did not even meet here at my office but at the old university – and that it will be holding consultation meetings. But the Chief Justice felt he had to make his criticism public. He had every right to do so and I respect that. After that statement there was a consultation meeting.

Given the Chief Justice’s reaction do you honestly believe that you can forge ahead with the reform or will you encounter resistance from the judiciary?

I am 100 per cent convinced that we can go ahead with the reform. There is a distinction between the association of the judiciary and the Chief Justice. Both have the judicial system at heart but the association resembles a union and when I met with its members they clearly told me they wanted things to change. Even the Chief Justice had told me of his wish to reform things.

I have had monthly meetings with the association and they insisted they had no problem with changing procedure but when it came to the appointment of members of the judiciary and discipline they had reservations. The association agrees with improving the method to discipline members of the judiciary but it disagrees with the details.

The method of appointing judges and magistrates and how to enforce discipline are two fundamental issues. Will you change the current scenario?

There will be a holistic reform, including the two issues you are raising. I believe the method of appointing the judiciary should change. There should also be a system that guarantees discipline that goes half way between impeachment and doing nothing. Members of the judiciary agree with this. However, they disagreed with the commission on the details: who should enforce discipline? Should there be a new commission (as proposed) or should it be the Commission for the Administration of Justice (a constitutional body)?

Can the problem of court delays ever be solved?

I am hopeful that it can. But first we have to understand the problem and that is why I asked the Management Efficiency Unit at the Office of the Prime Minister to analyse the situation. The most worrying thing that emerged from that report is that if the court registry had to close and no more new cases are accepted, we will need eight years to cut down the pending caseload. This is shocking but I have faith we can solve the problem. This Government was elected on a pledge to reform the law courts and I am committed to see this through.

The success of the reform depends on the willingness of the judiciary to cooperate. Are they willing?

Members of the judiciary I spoke to, including the Chief Justice, believe 100 per cent in this project. I am convinced that together we can undertake the reform that is so much needed. We do not have the luxury anymore to not reform the system. The EU has already signalled a warning when it included the justice sector in its country specific recommendations. I do not want to undertake this reform because of the EU but because it benefits the citizen. I am convinced the judiciary is on board.

The MEU report speaks of civil cases that take an average of four years to be decided and criminal cases that take an average of nine years to close. Do you have a target by how much you would like these averages to drop?

At this stage I want to wait for the (Bonello) commission’s final recommendations. By the end of this legislature I would like these results to change drastically. I don’t want to be speaking of an eight-year backlog but one that is heftily reduced. I am ambitious and I am here to do a good job. If everybody pulls the same rope we can cut the backlog. But the Government will set its targets once the final report is in.

Is there anything in the Bonello Commission’s report that you disagree with?

There are various things I disagree with on a personal level but I should not interfere in the commission’s work. I am leaving them free to reach their own conclusions. There are things that are good, some of them revolutionary in nature and which the country needs, but there are other issues, which as a lawyer, I feel need to be changed.

The report says the success of the reform will depend on an improvement in the salaries and pensions of the judiciary to attract the best people to the Bench. It even suggests the remuneration be brought up to the European average. You may have everything in place but the reform could very well stall on the financial package.

I am costing every measure. The MEU took the commission’s preliminary report and prepared costings for every proposed measure.

Can you give us an idea what it will cost in terms of wages and pensions?

It is better if I were to give this information when I received the final report because some recommendations may change. One of the proposals is to have a jurist, who will be an assistant to the judge but who does certain work. I believe a jurist should also have an attractive package. But I have to know whether this proposal will change in any way and this is why I prefer waiting until October.

One of the first appointments you announced was that of former Nationalist MP Franco Debono as coordinator of the constitutional convention. At what stage has this process arrived?

It is thanks to Dr Debono that judicial reform has been put on the political agenda. If it weren’t for him, probably, the yearning for reform would not be as intense as it is today. But it is the Prime Minister who is politically responsible for the constitutional convention and Dr Debono was his appointment, something I agreed with. Preparatory work is being done though, even if from the outside it does not seem so. At the appropriate time the Prime Minister will make an announcement on the matter.

Last week, the Opposition leader said the PN was keeping the door open for talks on constitutional reform even though it disagreed with Dr Debono’s appointment but it had heard nothing so far.

At this stage the Opposition seems to have adopted a positive approach towards the constitutional convention but it would be premature for me to speak on the workings of the convention.

You agreed with Dr Debono’s appointment but isn’t he a divisive figure?

He is not. When you see Dr Debono’s drive to reform the judicial system and make constitutional changes there is widespread agreement that he is competent for the post. The criticism some people make is related to his method of operation and not his competence. The PN has the best opportunity to mend bridges with Dr Debono. We read the PN’s defeat report and it clearly states the party has to fling open its doors. The Labour Party passed through this phase and I know what it means. This is an opportunity for the PN to build bridges with various people, including Dr Debono.

The Labour Party was elected on the ticket of a movement, a coalition of different interests. Now it is in government do you feel this coalition of interests can push away traditional hardcore Labourites? We have seen the negative reaction to the appointment of Lou Bondì. How comfortable are the grassroots with all this?

This is a culture shock. When we said this will be a Government that will act as a movement, there were some who did not understand what we meant. Today, these people appreciate the fact that there may be people who do not agree with you politically but who will be ready to work with you. When I appointed the justice reform commission I chose Mr Justice Giovanni Bonello as president because his name guarantees integrity and seriousness.

When you look at this benchmark of meritocracy, you can understand better what we are trying to achieve. I understand the criticism from some of the party’s grassroots but as time passes they will appreciate what we would have achieved. A change in mentality requires courage and Dr Muscat, at this historical juncture, is making a courageous step forward.

Manuel Mallia is a politically respectable gentleman but we felt that it would be better if the portfolios were kept separate

You contest a very Labour district that includes Żejtun. You must have received criticism.

There were those who criticised Mr Bondì’s appointment. Incidentally, I agreed with the choice because Mr Bondì has very good organisational and communication skills. This is what we meant during the campaign when we harped on the importance of using everyone’s talent. But there were some grassroots supporters, who have no affinity with Mr Bondì...

They are the same people who have heard the Labour Party criticise Lou Bondì countless times. Do you blame them?

There were some grassroots supporters, including activists, who understood the wisdom of such a decision. They told me they agreed with the choice because it was important to send the right message that Malta was truly everyone’s country.

As regards Mr Bondì’s work, I have lodged protests with the Broadcasting Authority on what I felt was incorrect reporting. But this does not mean that because I took such action I do not recognise his skills in the organisation of national events. I may not agree with you but I can work with you and this is the sentiment the Prime Minister wants to convey.

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