Three new judges and magistrates were sworn in today at the Presidential Palace. The oaths of office were administered by President George Vella who urged the Government to create and implement measures to strengthen the independence of the judiciary as recommended by the Venice Commission. Reacting to the Court’s decision rejecting the request filed by the Group Repubblika MT earlier this morning, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that the government had always respected court decisions.
Three magistrates, Dr. Francesco Depasquale, Dr Joanne Vella Cuschieri and Dr Aaron Bugeja were appointed judges and three lawyers, Nadine Lia, Victor Axiak and Bridget Sultana were appointed magistrates.
During the ceremony the judges and Magistrates were visibly emotional as they thanked their families for their support while promising to fulfill their duties as per the Constitution.
President George Vella congratulated the new adjudicators while sending a message about their responsibilities.
Dr George Vella said “when deciding a case, never forget that the matter before you is not simply a file number or an academic challenge but a human being, who is flesh and blood: a father, son, mother, a person. This is crucial and pivotal to the dispensation of justice.”
President Vella urged the Government to work on the recommendations of the Venice Commission to convey the message that judicial appointments were based on merit and competence.
These appointments were approved by Cabinet having been first approved by a Judicial Appointments Committee in virtue of the Constitution. The Ministry of Justice said that with these additional appointments the number of judges and magistrates will increase by two respectively. He said that this was helping to ensure that citizens were given better recourse to the courts and offering the possibility of more expertise among the judiciary.
Shortly before administering the oath of office, Repubblika MT asked the court to stop these appointments. Assisted by lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Simon Busuttil, the group said that the government should heed the advice of the Venice Commission experts and propose constitutional reforms to ensure that new judges are selected by such a system in the interest of democracy and the independence of the judiciary.
The Court, presided by Judge Mark Chetcuti, rejected the group’s request.
Meanwhile Repubblika MT said in a statement that although the Court had stopped short of halting the appointments, it had acceded to its request for the case to be tried urgently and had given the government until tomorrow evening to file its reply in order for the case to be heard on Monday morning. The Group said it was disappointed that after this decision, the Government had gone on to appoint or promote six members of the judiciary and said that this was done in a panic to ensure that the Court did not disrupt the Government’s intention to fill up the judicial benches with people of its choice.
In response to these appointments, Opposition Leader Adrian Delia said in a statement that the Government had not consulted the Opposition on these appointments and that these had been approved before the Government had committed itself to implementing the Venice Commission reforms. Dr. Delia said that this clearly showed that the Government did not really want the judiciary to be independent and impartial but wanted to continue to have absolute control over who was appointed for its own partisan interests. He added that the Opposition would not accept that the much needed rule of law reforms would be made worthless even before their coming into force on account of such decisions.
Minister of Justice Owen Bonnici said in a statement that through the legal actions filed by Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi, the two MPs had done everything in their power to stop these judicial appointments based on a system of appointment which they themselves had voted in favour of in 2016. He added that by their actions they were saying that all judges previously appointed – including those appointed when they were government – were not impartial or independent. The Ministry called this a frontal attack on the judiciary as a whole. He added that the Government was determined to continue to improve the field of justice and strengthen democracy and the rule of law.
Meanwhile, in response to the Leader of the Opposition, the Labour Party said that Adrian Delia had gone on the offensive and had decided to attack the Prime Minister and the Minister for Justice for “ignoring the Venice Commission” when he himself had ignored the court decree issued a few hours before, rejecting the request of two of his own deputies. It said that Dr. Delia knows that the Government has already enhanced the method of appointment of judges by means of the 2016 amendments which his party had unanimously voted in favour of.