Intervention by Minister for Justice and Local Government Dr Owen Bonnici, during a hearing of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights within the Council of Europe on the subject of ‘Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination and the rule of law in Malta and beyond: ensuring that the whole truth emerges’ in Strasbourg
In the first place I would like to thank you for the opportunity to have this exchange of views and to engage in a genuine dialogue about Malta’s state of play regarding its legal system and recent and upcoming reforms to further strengthen the rule of law.
It should be noted from the outset that since the election of the present Government in 2013, this Government has implemented a series of robust reforms.
We are a Reformist Government. In the past six years, numerous positive legal reforms have been brought into force with the sole aim of aligning the Maltese legal system with contemporary legal standards in a manner which respects and adheres to the notion of the rule of law and separation of powers.
The reform momentum achieved in the past years include, amongst others:
i. a law concerning the removal of the notion of time-barring by prescription over corruption offences committed by politicians. This Act, entered into force in June 2013, effectively abrogates the possibility of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, MPs, mayors and councillors to use time barring by prescription in those instances. An enactment which raised the bar and sent a clear message to politicians that the government demanded the best performance from them. Undeniably, this was a huge step forward for our country in the bid of better strengthening our European democratic credentials.
ii. Another crucial reform that was introduced during the past years was the regulation of political party financing. Through this new piece of legislation political parties are bound to submit the party’s audited financial accounts within four months of the end of the financial year and a tri-annual donations report, within sixty days of their reporting period. The Electoral Commission will then make a copy of the statement available for public inspection. Whilst this law regulates all the registered parties in the same manner, irrespectively of the party dimensions, it also strengthens political transparency and honesty as it provides a limit of how much a party can receive donations from the same source on an annual basis. GRECO praised this law, and they described it as an important milestone, which will increase our country’s transparency.
iii. The Justice Sector’s Constitutional Reform in 2016 was yet another historic one for our country, which aided to more strengthening of the independence of the judicature. This was based on 3 fundamental pillars, being: transparency in the appointment of the judiciary; the accountability of the judiciary; and improving conditions of office of the judiciary. This led to the setting up of 2 sub-committees of the Commission for the Administration of Justice to be styled as the Judicial Appointments Commission which advises on judicial appointments and the Committee for Judges and Magistrates (made up of members of the Judiciary) which conducts disciplinary proceedings in respect of members of the judiciary.
iv. The law pertaining the regulation of public appointments entered into force in February 2018. This law provides for pre-appointment parliamentary hearings, undertaken by the Committee on Public Appointments with respect to important public appointments to Ambassadorships and to leading roles in regulatory authorities. This strong measure advocates transparency and the strengthening of good administration and is yet another example of good governance and the strengthening of the rule of law, since the Government has removed its absolute power to carry out leading role appointments and placed it in the hands of the Committee, made up of the Government and Opposition.
v. The legislative enactment of the Whistleblower Act provides for procedures in terms of which employees, in both the private sector and the public administration, may disclose information regarding improper practices by their employers and other employees and to protect employees who make said disclosures from detrimental action. The legislative situation in Malta is in itself quite advanced when compared to other Union Member States that either have no horizontal whistleblower protection enactment or else are still discussing such rules at national level. These laws – and most notably the “blanket immunity” provided – were recently described as “the strongest in the world”. Malta has also ranked the 2nd best in all the European Union countries when it comes to this law according to an independent report conducted by international NGO Blueprint for Free Speech.
vi. A new Media and Defamation Law giving unprecedented liberties for journalistic expression and which abolished criminal libel; Through this enactment, Malta closed the chapter on criminal libel and on various other criminal crimes, which were a burden on the freedom of expression and the full participation of the citizen in a democratic country. As well as abolishing criminal libel, the Act removes references to offending “public morals or decency”, prevents plaintiffs from filing any garnishee orders against journalists and only allows applicants to file one libel suit per story (anti-SLAPP). This government truly believes in the right of freedom of expression, which is the basis of any media-related activity and is also one of the main pillars of a democratic system.
vii. Also, Malta joined the European Public Prosecutor’s Office commonly referred to as EPPO. This decentralised European investigative and prosecution office will be responsible for investigating, prosecuting and bringing into judgement the perpetrators of, and accomplices in, criminal fraud offences affecting the Union’s financial interests. It safeguards the economic interests and ensures that Union funds are employed for the achievement of social and economic purposes for which they are intended. This will ensure progression to a higher level of police and judicial cooperation in Europe to the benefit of justice, peace and security.
viii. In accordance with European Union directives, this Government has completely set up the Asset Recovery Bureau. This enables and empowers the Bureau to take control amongst others of assets and property derived from criminal activity, in the bid of managing the said assets in a way which is beneficial to the community. Also, the Bureau will be entrusted with the proper and efficient tracing, collection, storage, preservation, management and disposal, either in whole or in part, of proceeds of crime or property.
ix. The Government introduced a new legal framework which established the Court of Appeal (3rd Chamber). A new section has been introduced with the aim of reducing waiting time of court cases within the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal used to comprise two sections, each with three judges and chaired by the Chief Justice. The 3rd Chamber will also be made by three judges but not chaired by Chief Justice, but will be presided by another Senior Judge, to ensure that further hearings can be held. However, the assignment of duties is to be carried out solely and entirely by the Chief Justice. Thus, this new section can really speed up the process and appeals are appointed in a faster manner. This will consequently lead to a more efficient and better service provided to our community within our courts of justice.
All of these reforms within the justice sector were done to strengthen the rule of law whilst also better safeguarding our citizens’ needs and rights. Nonetheless, albeit this Government has done a lot in this respect (as indeed explained earlier), the Maltese Government remains committed to further improve our legal system through the implementation of positive reforms.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s horrendous murder which happened on the 16th October 2017, came as a shock to everyone. We left no stone unturned and all necessary resources were provided to our investigators. Foreign leading investigation agencies such as FBI, Interpol, Europol, Dutch and Finnish investigative authorities joined the investigation.
Also, a Magisterial Inquiry was instituted.
In less than 50 days from the murder, three Maltese citizens were arraigned to court accused with the brutal killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The Magisterial Inquiry is still ongoing with the ultimate objective of identifying any other persons involved in the murder. This goes to show the broad scope of the Inquiry. The committal proceedings with regards to the three persons charged are now nearing their conclusion.
In the meantime, the reform process to further strengthen the rule of law kept gaining momentum. This Government had, on its own initiative after meeting various European institutions, asked for and eventually welcomed an Opinion from the Venice Commission in the bid of further delivering change in the legal sector. This Government views the opinion of the Venice Commission as a valuable contribution to the process of legal and constitutional reform in our country. Furthermore, it builds on what this Government has been working towards after many years of stagnation and inactivity.
In this regard, it must be stated that the Government has formally announced that it would begin the implementation process of changes and also kickstarted the required legislative process, precisely on the 25th March 2019, on five separate bills concerning the Attorney General, Police, Constitutional Commissions, the Ombudsman and the Public Service.
In line with a Cabinet decision, the recommendations concerning the decoupling of the dual role of the AG and the recommendations concerning judicial appointments will be given priority.
The legal text regarding the process for the separation of the prosecution and the advisory roles, which have been held by the Attorney General since 1936 and reconfirmed in the 1964 Independence Constitution setup, will be published in the coming days and Government aims to discuss in the House of Representatives and seek Parliamentary approval before Parliament rises for the Summer recess.
The recommendations on the judiciary deal with a crucial element of any democracy and express a clear departure from conventions and systems on which our legal system is built. Furthermore, they require changes which can only be implemented through Constitutional amendments, which in turn can only be made with the approval of two-thirds of members of Parliament. Thus, Government will immediately embark on a consultation process with the Parliamentary Opposition with a view to reaching a consensus expediently.
As regards the other bills mentioned earlier, the respective legal texts will also be published in the near future and Government aims to make these changes by the end of the current calendar year.
I would also like to inform you that other recommendations of the Venice Commission, many of which still require constitutional change and a two-thirds majority approval, will also be submitted for the necessary consultation accordingly.
As recommended by the Venice Commission, the issue of transitory measures will also be the subject of consultation. Such measures are essential for implementing a planned and orderly transition from the current to the proposed systems in as smooth a manner as possible and for the avoidance of difficulties and legal uncertainties in the transitional periods.
Government is confident that this process will be expeditious and will complement the ongoing reform process to which it is committed, and in furtherance of which it has implemented numerous Constitutional and legal changes since 2013, to strengthen the enforcement of the rule of law and the separation of powers, all of which were acknowledged by the Venice Commission.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that this Government will not shy away from implementing necessary and important legal reforms. Notwithstanding the various reforms that has already been implemented, many of which were unprecedented or long overdue after having been shelved by previous administrations, this Government remains committed to further deliver change – changes and reforms which strengthen the enforcement of the rule of law and the separation of powers and ultimately empowers the Maltese citizen’s fundamental rights and freedoms.
Allow me to thank you for your attention. I hope that I have explained Malta’s position in the short time available.