A dramatic reduction of the Supreme Court’s powers is among sweeping changes proposed by the Maldivian Democratic Party to reform the judiciary.
The proposals were discussed at a campaign workshop held at the Brightway International School on Saturday to hammer out policies for the April 6 parliamentary elections. Former president Mohamed Nasheed, who is among the party’s candidates, chaired the workshop and President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih attended the last session.
Pursuing judicial reform was a key campaign pledge of President Solih with politicisation, inadequate qualification of judges, and lack of conformity to international fair trial standards among longstanding concerns.
According to a judicial reform policy paper presented by Hisaan Hussain, the MDP’s legal director and candidate for the Thulhaadhoo constituency, legislation would be proposed to restrict the Supreme Court’s authority.
Since its inception in 2008, the top court has annulled an election, taken over control of judicial administration, and initiated “suo moto” proceedings to dismiss members of independent commissions. Lawyers are routinely suspended and barred from appearing in courts.
Under the MDP’s proposals, the Department of Judicial Administration – which presently functions under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court – would become a separate, autonomous institution led by the chief judicial administrator, who would be appointed by parliament and answerable to a parliamentary oversight committee.
The top official would have the power to appoint and dismiss registrars and oversee court staff.
The registrar would be authorised to accept or reject cases without influence from judges, assign cases, and empanel a bench of judges to hear appeals.
The Supreme Court would not have the authority to take over ongoing cases from lower courts. It would also be required to hold open hearings before issuing rulings.
Powers to “advise” lower courts, appoint and transfer judges, and license and suspend lawyers would be removed from the Supreme Court.
Administrative work presently overseen by chief judges would become the duty of registrars, Hisaan said.
The mandate of the Judicial Service Commission, a 10-member oversight body, would be revised to require a review of the eligibility of judges under an expanded definition of the “high moral character” criterion stipulated in article 149 of the constitution.
This is needed to ensure a “courthouse with integrity,” Hisaan said.
The JSC would also review the salary and performance of judges.
The procedure for filing complaints to the watchdog would be made easier with anonymous reporting. The JSC must decide whether a judge would be investigated within five days after a complaint is submitted.
Other proposed changes include creating district courts in the capital island of each atoll with the same level of jurisdiction as the trial courts in Malé.
High Court regional branches in the north and south would be dissolved in favour of having judges travel to atoll capitals to hold hearings.
Residents of the capital could appeal directly to the High Court. In the rest of the country, appeals could be filed through electronic mail, post or the island magistrate court.
The current 10-day period to appeal lower court decisions would be prolonged. After a court is notified of the intention to appeal, the appellant would have 30 days to prepare the case.
Creating a semi-autonomous office for public defenders was also among the proposals. Hisaan said legislation would clearly specify cases where defendants could not afford to hire a lawyer.
A registry would also be created for public defenders, who must be licensed and experienced practitioners.
A total 16 policy papers were presented at the MDP’s one-day workshop on issues ranging from housing, decentralisation, income tax, minimum wages, student debt, unemployment benefits, environmental conservation, and state accountability.
According to former president Nasheed, the policy papers would form the basis for the legislative agenda the MDP would pursue to deliver President Solih’s manifesto pledges.