The government on Wednesday forged ahead with its plan to reform the constitution and hand public entities the power to impose much larger fines than they can right now.
Justice Minister Edward Zammit tabled Bill 166 which seeks to rework Article 39 of the Constitution.
The changes seek to allow higher administrative fines to be imposed by any public officer or authority, and in the process redefine the meaning of a ‘criminal offence’.
Currently, such fines can only be imposed by a court.
Addressing parliament, Zammit Lewis said the current law, written in 1964, was anachronistic.
“Our authorities are toothless in the fight against organised and financial crime,” he said.
Sources say the proposed reform is one of the commitments the government has made to international assessors after Malta was placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list of untrustworthy financial jurisdictions last month.
We didn’t pass the FATF, and one of the reasons was that they wanted us to exhibit effectiveness of action – that means to be a dog that not only barks, but bites where needed,” they said.
Opposition already declared position against reform
The government’s plan to tweak the constitution, however, will not be that simple, as rewriting the supreme law of the land and require a two-thirds majority vote in favour to pass through the House.
The Nationalist Party in Opposition has already declared its position against the government’s plans and urged it “to stop acting irresponsibly” and start respecting the constitution.
Without the opposition’s backing, the government’s proposals will fall flat.
The matter was cast in the headlines this past week after the Council of Europe’s rule-of-law experts handed the government an academic opinion on the proposed changes.
The Venice Commission was requested by the government to weigh in on whether it should seek to change the constitution or another existing law known as the Interpretation Act, a route the government was in favour of taking.
The commission concluded that the constitutional reform route was the best approach, although it did not weigh in on the merits of the proposal.
The planned changes have drawn heavy criticism from legal scholars, politicians and lobby groups.
Critics, including constitutional law scholars, say the proposed amendments would do away with due process and impinge on people’s right to a fair hearing, as people or companies could be fined huge amounts without any form of redress.
The Chamber of Advocates has warned that redefining a criminal office would also impact people’s right to protection of law under the constitution.
Critics have also accused the government of trying to pass the amendment by stealth as a legal notice, after an initial attempt to amend the constitution to include it collapsed.
The government has defended the amendment by arguing that it seeks to address a legal grey area and give regulatory bodies certainty when dishing out fines while easing pressures on the law courts.
The road ahead is not straightforward.
In the Venice Commission’s published opinion, the experts said that the choice that the Maltese authorities are facing is a complex one: affording full fair-trial guarantees on the one hand, or ensuring effective regulatory action on the other.
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