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The new Chief Justice’s task

The government announced last night it would ask the President to appoint Mr Justice Joseph Azzopardi as the new Chief Justice, succeeding Silvio Camilleri who reaches the age of 65 on April 25 and must, therefore, retire.

The new Chief Justice will have quite a daunting task if he is to heed the advice made by Dr Camilleri late last year. The outgoing Chief Justice had dedicated his speech at the opening of the forensic year to the rule of law:

“… I intend to embark immediately on expressing some ideas about certain fundamental principles upon which, in past years, I did not consider necessary to elaborate too much upon because, in my view, they were too basic and elementary in a modern democratic society to require discussion.

“Today, I am of a different opinion. Today, I believe that we need to go back to the basics in order that these are not forgotten and in order that we always keep in mind the very reason for the existence of the judiciary and that which should motivate us as judges.”

It is, of course, the responsibility of all members of the judiciary to ensure that “certain fundamental principles” are constantly respected by all.

As primus inter pares, the Chief Justice must ensure – by word and deed – that justice is not only done but also seen to be done. And, given recent experiences, this is no longer a cliché.

The appointment, role and functions of the Chief Justice are determined primarily by the Constitution and by the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure.

The Chief Justice has a number of roles, including serving as ex officio president of the Court of Appeal (when composed of three judges), of the Constitutional Court and of the Court of Criminal Appeal (three judges), ex officio deputy chairman of the Commission for the Administration of Justice and chairing the Judicial Appointments Committee. He also recommends to the Justice Minister how judges and magistrates are to be allocated between the different courts.

That means the Chief Justice can effectively exercise a lot of influence. However, the most important influence would, of course, be through his behaviour, in how he handles cases before him and how he disposes of them efficiently and in an erudite way. Being affable, honest and uncontroversial helps – indeed, honesty is vital – but such qualities alone are not enough.

Having been a judge for 15 years, Dr Azzopardi’s qualities and abilities have been tried and tested. Still, as he prepares to take his oath of office on April 26, it would not be amiss to highlight three outstanding qualities one would expect to see in a Chief Justice, indeed in every member of the judiciary.

First, s/he cannot be politically controversial or compromised. The government yesterday pointed out that the Opposition had been kept updated throughout the selection process.

Secondly, through his/her judgments, s/he has to show that s/he has a sound academic but also practical knowledge of the more important branches of the law.

Mr Justice Azzopardi has already a lot to show for in this regard.

Thirdly, the person must be able to lead by example, inspire the colleagues on the Bench and instil a sense of purpose in all those working at the law courts. More importantly, the Chief Justice must ensure that all the labour of the judiciary is directed at safeguarding the rule of law.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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