The Malta Independent 13 August 2022, Saturday

When presidents refuse to sign, or sign under protest

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 31 July 2022, 08:30 Last update: about 13 days ago

Part of the President’s duties is to sign bills approved by Parliament, allowing them to become law.

But things have not always run smoothly. There have been occasions in Malta’s recent history where a President had an issue with a particular bill.

On July 6 this year, Parliament adopted a bill amending laws relating to IVF, but it was only signed into law three weeks later, last Wednesday, and was done so by Acting President Frank Bezzina, not President George Vella, who travelled abroad on the same day.

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The delay between the Parliamentary vote and the signing of the bill by the President’s office raised eyebrows. The Constitution reads that when a bill is presented to the President for assent, “he shall without delay signify that he assents.”

The legal amendments on the IVF law were one of the Labour Party’s key promises for its first 100 days in government and will, among other things, see the introduction of pre-implantation genetic testing that will screen for nine serious health conditions. Embryos found to carry any of these conditions could be frozen. The issue saw widespread debate in the country, and some raised ethical concerns over the issue.

Speculation prior to Bezzina signing the bill was that President Vella was uncomfortable signing the law, and news articles read that Vella expressed misgivings about the bill and its contents in private. Vella did not express such misgivings publicly, only saying that the bill would be signed, but not by whom.

One must note that back in 2018, after stepping down as an MP, George Vella, a medical doctor by profession, had criticised amendments to the IVF law that proposed to allow embryo freezing among other things, calling it “a complete travesty of ethics, morality, and human dignity.”  The President has also previously spoken out against abortion, saying he would rather resign than sign a law that introduces the practice in Malta.

The sudden appointment of Bezzina as Acting President was also interpreted by many as an insurance policy in case the President would not sign the bill.

After Bezzina signed the law, President Vella was openly criticised by Opposition Leader Bernard Grech, who said he expected better from the President than to play games with the Constitution. Grech said that the choice the President had before him was to sign it, or resign due to moral issues, and not to wait until he went abroad for the bill to be signed into law by his substitute.

Others had also criticised the President before the bill was signed into law. Professor of Law Kevin Aquilina had said in an article on The Malta Independent that the words ‘without delay’ in the Constitution are now being interpreted to read ‘at the President’s convenience and subject to his whims and caprice’. Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia said that the delay does not only breach the Constitution but is also stopping people from accessing medical and health-related services. The ADPD called for Vella to be impeached.

Vella is not the first President to come face to face with bills that have seen heated debates in the country. One doesn’t need to look too far into the past to see such circumstances. Both Presidents Emeritus Marie Louise Coleiro Preca as well as George Abela were faced with bills that had resulted in moral and ethical debates in the country at their respective times.

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, in 2018, had handled a similar situation differently to President Vella. A bill before her that was also about embryos, amending the Embryo Protection Act, had been passed. The bill in question had introduced embryo freezing.

After seeking ethical, moral and legal advice from several experts in the field and following a long period of reflection and personal discernment, I have taken the decision to sign the Act,” she said at the time. “I want to make it clear that this decision in no way compromises my firm views and ethical values on human life, the family and the wellbeing of the unborn child from the moment of conception."

She had said at the time: “I am signing the Act, in the form it was presented to me by the Government, solely out of respect and loyalty to my country’s democratic process and to the Constitution, which does not confer upon me legislative functions except that of assenting to Bills when these are already approved by the House of Representatives. Moreover, I am bound to act on the advice of the Government of the day or of a Minister of Government and, in the case of Bills approved by the House of Representatives, to assent thereto without delay. I could have taken the option, mooted in the press, to absent myself from the country while this Bill received its third reading in Parliament. However, I have never been one to shirk my responsibilities or my duties as President of Malta and I will not do so now.”

Her statement that she was signing the bill “solely” out of respect for the democratic process indicates that she may have had some reservations about the issue.

As to President Emeritus George Abela, there was speculation regarding his stance on the Civil Unions Bill in 2014. It had been reported in the press at the time that government had postponed the final Parliamentary vote to approve the bill’s third reading as the President had informally told then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat that he was not willing to sign it, although neither Abela nor Muscat had admitted this publicly. It was only after his scheduled term ended as President very soon after, and Coleiro Preca took office, that the bill was given its third reading and signed into law.

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