The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

Venice Commission reforms should be presented as a whole package – Omtzigt

Albert Galea Sunday, 16 June 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The reforms recommended by the Venice Commission should be presented together as a whole package so that everyone can see whether or not they are adequate, Dutch MP and Council of Europe Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Asked by this newspaper whether he was content with the piecemeal approach that the Maltese government has taken to implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission, Omtzigt replied in the negative.

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He noted that the report which he had compiled and which was adopted on 29 May by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, states that Malta should implement the reform packages of the Venice Commission and GRECO “in their entirety” and that “reforms should be designed and implemented as a coherent, co-ordinated package”.

The Venice Commission published a wide-reaching set of recommendations last December, mainly focusing on a number of constitutional reforms with respect to the country’s judicial system and the concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Omtzigt’s report, meanwhile, focused mainly on the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and, after noting a number of “serious concerns” with how the investigation had been handled, recommended the opening of a public inquiry into the case. The report, however, also cited serious concerns over Malta’s rule of law in general, along with the workings of the country’s criminal justice system.

Speaking to this newsroom, the Dutch MP referred to the reforms to the Attorney General’s office, as stipulated within the State Advocate Bill, as a good example of why implementing the reforms as a complete and coherent package is necessary.

The State Advocate Bill, which was debated for three days in Parliament last week, proposes the separation of the roles that the Attorney General carries out through the creation of a State Advocate. It is a reform that the government says follows the recommendations of the Venice Commission, but this point has been argued by both the Opposition and by people in the legal field.

The Opposition, in fact, announced its intention to vote against the Bill, citing concerns over the fact that the appointment of the State Advocate would still remain in the hands of the Prime Minister, while Kevin Aquilina, formerly the Dean of the Faculty of Laws, called the Bill “yet another classic example of how legislation should never be drafted” and a “parody of the December 2018 Venice Commission report”.

Omtzigt said that his report noted that: “The Venice Commission called for the removal of the Attorney General from the board of the FIAU, for the ‘new’ Attorney General’s decisions on prosecutions to be subject to judicial review and for the ‘new’ Attorney General to take over responsibility for magistrate’s inquests”.

“None of these things are in the State Advocate Bill”, he said. “Perhaps they will be part of later reforms, I don’t know – but it would be far better if the reforms were all presented together, as a package, so that everyone can see whether or not they are adequate”, the Dutch MP told this newsroom.

Asked whether he is comfortable with how the State Advocate Bill has been prepared and tabled by the government and the way in which it will be implemented, Omtzigt said that while his report said that an important institutional reform such as this should be prepared as a “coherent, co-ordinated package, through an open, widely inclusive and transparent process”, this is “clearly not happening” and he noted that no overall package or broad consultation has been presented thus far.

“Since the report was adopted, the reform process is not going as we would expect, either on judicial appointments – where we called on the Prime Minister to stop appointing judges until the system has been reformed – or on the reform of the Attorney General’s office”, he said.

Given this, Omtzigt said that he is not comfortable with the reform process and that it does not inspire confidence in the eventual outcome.

“The government should reconsider this approach if it hopes for the approval of European institutions”, he said. 

Asked whether he would react if the Venice Commission’s recommendations are not implemented as a whole and as recommended, Omtzigt noted that, as the person responsible for ensuring a follow-up to the Assembly’s resolution for a year after it is adopted, he will definitely be keeping a close eye on the government’s implementation of the Venice Commission’s recommendations and will comment if things are “going wrong”.

“The Venice Commission is an august, authoritative body; it makes recommendations carefully and deliberately and only where necessary. The Maltese government must take them absolutely seriously and implement them in full – as the Prime Minister originally promised to do”, Omtzigt said.

The Dutch MP noted that, if it so wished, the government can seek advice from the Venice Commission on the current proposal. “I believe it would be a wise step to take”, he said.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Venice Commission told this newsroom that they are also following developments with regard to Malta’s implementation of their recommendations. The spokesperson said that the Commission can assess the new draft legislation following a request by the authorities, the statutory bodies of the Council of Europe, the EU or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, as per its statute.

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