Berlusconi unveils justice reforms
Critics say prime minister's plans to split up judiciary are aimed at curbing powers of Italy's independent magistrates.
Last Modified: 10 Mar 2011 15:38 GMT
Justice minister Angelino Alfano, right, said judges who make wrong decisions could be liable to lawsuits [EPA]

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister who faces trial on corruption and sex charges, has unveiled what he has called "epoch making" reforms to the country's justice system.

The plan would introduce a clear separation between the careers of investigative magistrates and judges and transfer powers for disciplining magistrates to an outside body.

Critics said the move, which will have to undergo a long parliamentary process before final approval, was aimed at taming the country's powerful independent magistrates.

Berlusconi has repeatedly accused magistrates of trying to bring him down for political reasons.

The reforms also aim to speed up Italy's notoriously snail-paced justice system.

Judges who make wrong decisions could be liable to lawsuits by aggrieved citizens, similar to medical malpractice suits, Angelino Alfano, the justice minister, told a news conference in Rome, the capital, on Thursday.

Alfano said trials that have already begun will not be affected by the changes, which could take more than a year to implement.

The CSM, the High Council of the Magistracy, would be split into two halves and its powers to discipline magistrates would pass to a special body, which could include members from outside the judicial system.

Maurizio Paniz, a lawyer and senior deputy in the ruling PDL party, said the changes were intended to restore the balance between defendants and the prosecution and impose proper controls on investigators.

"As things stand today, they don't answer to anyone. The CSM is highly politicised and incoherent and that makes it difficult for it to reach judgments calmly and properly," he said. "This is absolutely not a reform aimed against the magistrates."

'Ideological motives'

ANM, the main magistrates association, has rejected Berlusconi's accusations that "communist" justice officials have tried to pervert the system to defeat him and have said that the reforms appeared aimed at limiting their autonomy.

Powerful, independent magistrates have been responsible for great change in Italy, notably in the 1990s when the 'Clean Hands' inquiries uncovered a vast network of corruption and led to the overthrow of the whole political system.

Berlusconi, who has faced at least a dozen trials and scores of judicial investigations over the years, was recently stripped of his immunity from prosecution by a constitutional court ruling that has reopened three related corruption trials.

He also stands accused of paying for sex with a minor and abusing the power of his office to try to cover up his connection with a teenage nightclub dancer.

The prime minister denies doing anything illegal in any of the cases but his battles with the justice system have reopened his longstanding feud with the magistrates and raised suspicions in some quarters that the reforms are aimed at reining them in.

The centre-left opposition has also accused Berlusconi of trying to gain revenge on magistrates for his legal troubles.

"This is a reform prompted by personal resentment and  ideological motives rather than from a real need to make trials work," said Anna Finocchiaro, head of the opposition Democratic Party group in the Senate.

Berlusconi told the news conference on Thursday that his current legal woes had nothing to do with the reform.

"We [the centre-right] have wanted to do this since 1994," he said, referring to the year of his first government.

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