More judges, faster trials: Italy approves major overhaul of criminal justice system

Italy’s justice system is known for having some of Europe's most congested courts, drawn-out legal procedures and exorbitant costs - but could all this soon become a thing of the past?

More judges, faster trials: Italy approves major overhaul of criminal justice system
An inscription at a courthouse in Calabria reads "The law is equal for all". Photo: Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

The Italian parliament on Thursday approved reform of the criminal justice system, and has also given the initial green light for changes to the civil side.

Reforming Italy’s creaking justice system is one of the toughest tasks facing Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government – and one of the conditions the EU attached to the granting of the post-virus recovery fund.

The percentage of cases resolved has been falling for the past decade and timeframes have stretched to the longest in the EU after Greece, according to the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ).

A case takes in theory 527 days to be resolved in Italy, compared to 420 in France and just 94 in Luxembourg, according to a 2020 report.

Delays are not simply a headache for those involved, but have an impact on business activity.

Brussels has insisted on reform “because the efficiency of justice goes hand in hand with the promotion of investments, particularly by foreign companies”, Maurizio Bellacosa, professor of criminal law at Rome’s Luiss university, told AFP.

Some 2.3 billion euros of the EU funds has been earmarked to speed up legal procedures, by 40 percent in civil cases and 25 percent in criminal matters.

At the heart of the criminal reform is a plan to reduce the limitation periods for less serious cases, where currently no deadline exists after the initial judgment.

Initial appeals must now be resolved within two years, with final appeals lasting a year, after which the legal action ends.

The most serious cases such as terrorism, mafia activity, drug trafficking and sexual violence will be allowed five and 2.5 years respectively, with no limits on crimes involving life sentences.

READ ALSO: ‘Ndrangheta: Major Italian mafia ‘maxi-trial’ kicks off with over 350 defendants

The reform will not fully come into effect until 2025, to allow time to clear some of the backlog which has been made worse by coronavirus pandemic,which paralysed the courts for months.

One crucial element in its success will be the recruitment of more magistrates and assessors, notably in the appeal courts.

“The reform must be accompanied by large investments to make the judicial machine more efficient, in terms of structures, an increase in magistrates and personnel,” Bellacosa added. “That’s the real challenge.”

However, not everyone is wholly behind the reform plan.

Leading anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri is one of those who has warned it could have disastrous effects.

 “Fifty percent of trials will be declared inadmissible in appeal or in cassation (final appeal),” he warned earlier this month.

“Europe said ‘make trials faster’, not to stop having trials.”

But Draghi is under pressure to push through the reforms to show Brussels he is serious about making the changes necessary to secure the EU funds, which Italy is hoping will help it climb out of a deep recession sparked by the pandemic.

The deal with Brussels states that the European Commission will not authorise further payments until Italy meets the milestones and targets set out in its plan.

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.