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Trial reform looms as new threat for Italy's fractious government

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By Reuters
Trial reform looms as new threat for Italy's fractious government
FILE PHOTO: Alfonso Bonafede arrives at Quirinale Presidential Palace, before being sworn in as Italy's justice minister, in Rome, Italy September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ciro de Luca   -   Copyright  Ciro De Luca(Reuters)
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By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s ruling parties are on a collision course over a proposal to relax time limits on the prosecution of crimes, threatening the future of the fractious, three-month old government.

Italy has long been dogged by a dysfunctional, painfully slow justice system, but the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) have differing ideas on how to fix it — and neither seems willing to back down.

5-Star, for whom the fight against corruption has always been a clarion call, says much of the blame lies with the so-called statute of limitations, which wipes out trials if a verdict is not reached within a set limit.

The party’s Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede has proposed scrapping the statute of limitations rule after an initial verdict, allowing the appeals process to take place without time limits.

The changes are due to kick in from January, but the PD opposes the reform, saying defendants would face years of legal uncertainty while their trials continue interminably.

Bonafede warned last week it would be “a grave matter” if the PD were to join forces with the opposition parties, including Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, to vote down the reform in parliament.

He did not reply when asked by Reuters on Monday whether, in such an event, 5-Star would bring down the government.

“If there is no political agreement (on a broader reform), we won’t let the statute of limitations changes through,” said Alfredo Bazoli, PD leader in the lower house justice committee.

Italy’s ruling parties are already split on areas from euro zone reform to migrant rights. Some political analysts forecast the government could fall within months and justice could be the issue that tips it over the edge.

Unlike other major Western countries, the legal clock in Italy starts when a crime is committed and keeps ticking until the statute of limitations becomes effective, making the trial null and void.

In 2018, 117,367 proceedings ended before reaching a verdict, justice ministry data shows, with the vast majority involving white-collar crime.

However, 75% of these reached the time limit before a first verdict was issued, meaning Bonafede’s reform would have only a limited effect on preventing trials being annulled.

The need to speed up the justice system is indisputable. From 1958 to 2018, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Italy 1,194 times for excessive length of trial proceedings, more than any other European country.

(Editing by Gavin Jones and Ed Osmond)

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