Campaigners claim victory as EU court backs the way Malta chooses judges

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Malta's Courts of Justice building in Valletta, Malta, November 21, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's top court ruled on Tuesday that Malta's system for appointing judges aligned with EU standards, in a case which campaigners said had forced the government to carry out reforms.

The ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) came after Repubblika, an organisation which campaigns to protect justice and the rule of law in Malta, challenged the country's system of appointing judges in a national court.

That court then sought guidance from the Luxembourg-based CJEU on whether the Maltese system complies with the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights and the CJEU set out the criteria to guarantee judicial independence and impartiality.

The CJEU judges said it was not counter to EU law for a prime minister to appoint members of the judiciary as long as an independent body assessed candidates and gave an opinion.

The Maltese requirement that the prime minister must provide the reasons for choosing a candidate not put forward by the independent body was an additional safeguard, they said.

Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela welcomed the ruling.

"It demonstrates that our reforms have been recognised and our judicial system has been effectively strengthened for the benefit of our citizens," he said in a tweet.

Campaign group Repubblika said the government would not have carried out the reforms if it had not brought the case in 2019.

"In fact, a week ago, for the first time, judges were nominated for appointment without the government having anything to do with their selection," Repubblika said.

The ruling, which came amid criticism of moves by fellow-EU members Poland and Hungary to control judicial appointments, noted EU states had committed to upholding the rule of law and said they must not undermine the independence of the judiciary.

The CJEU last month backed the right of Polish judges applying to join the country's Supreme Court to appeal against the opinions of a body which reviews candidates, underlining a rift over the rule of law between the country and the bloc.

The European Commission has long accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of undermining freedoms of courts, media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academics, as well as of violating the law with his restrictive migration policies.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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