“Perfect laws in the hands of crooks” – Vanni Bonello

Photo: Malta Chamber of Commerce

“Better poor laws in the hands of good people than perfect laws in the hands of crooks.” That was one of the reactions of Judge Emeritus Vanni Bonello when asked by Newsbook.com.mt to comment on the recommendations of the Venice Commission.

He added that “reforms, to be truly meaningful, must not only be written on paper, but be engraved in the spirit of the population.”

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Asked about the power the Constitution invests in the Prime Minister, Judge Emeritus Bonello answered that “It is not power in itself that is wrong, but the way it is exercised or abused. Exactly the same law, exactly the same structures, can result in democratically acceptable results or in harmful injury to common good.”

Bonello finds the report of the Venice Commission “excellent, balanced and, in the Maltese scenario, overdue.”

Vanni Bonello served as a Judge in the European Court of Human Rights. He was also the chair of the Commission for the Holistic Reform in the Field of Justice appointed by Government in May of 2013. During the interview he referred to the “strong parallels” between the recommendations of the commission he chaired and those of the Venice Commission.

The Venice Commission is an advisory body of the Council of Europe which is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law. The Commission, also consults on democratic institutions and fundamental rights, electoral law and constitutional justice.

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Text of interview with Bonello

The whole interview with Judge Emeritus Vanni Bonello follows:

1) What was your initial reaction to the recommendations of the Venice Commission?

I find the report excellent, balanced and, in the Maltese scenario, overdue. The recommendations, if followed in legislation and put in practice, will somehow improve the extremely weak existing structures aimed to prop the rule of law and the authority of a genuinely independent judiciary.

2) How broad should the process be for the recommendations to be put in place? What does the ideal process look like? Apart from the political parties, how involved should civil society be in the process?

Reforms, to be truly meaningful, must not only be written on paper, but be engraved in the spirit of the population. You can have the most perfect Constitution, but unless the majority is complicit with its values, it will remain a dead letter. It is useless having good laws on the statute book unless civil society is jealous of them and critical of those who evade them. Better poor laws in the hands of good people than perfect laws in the hands of crooks.

Power not controlled tend to despotism

3) Do you agree that Malta needs a President with more powers and a Prime Minister with less powers?

The amount of powers invested in an individual officer of the state is not really determinant. What is determinant is how effective the checks and balances to those powers are. Whether exercised by the President or the Prime Minister, power which is not effectively controlled tends to become despotism, whether by the President or by the Prime Minister.

4) The Venice Commission is criticising the system it found in place. This structure has been in place for a long time. Why is this wide-ranging criticism being dished out now? What changed? The structure or the people?

Must I repeat? It is not power in itself that is wrong, but the way it is exercised or abused. Exactly the same law, exactly the same structures, can result in democratically acceptable results or in harmful injury to common good.

Same ideals, similar results

5) What comparisons would you draw between the Venice Commission’s recommendations and those you often recommended yourself?

There are strong parallels between the findings and recommendation of the Venice Commission and those contained in the  Report of the commission which I chaired. Same ideals produce similar results. And I would not like to take sole credit for those results. They were the joint and unanimous work of my colleagues on that Commission, Dr Ramona Frendo, Judge Philip Sciberras and Professor Kevin Aquilina. Their input in reaching very similar conclusion as the Venice Commission, was outstanding.