Ken Mifsud-Bonnici is a member of the Legal Service at the European Commission. He spoke with Ken Daly about his work in public service, including how he’s tackled nearly 200 cases in the last eight years, and working across the 24 official EU languages, including his native Maltese.
Ken D.: Can you tell me a little bit about what you are doing these days?
Ken M-B: I am in the Legal Service of the European Commission. We act somewhat like an Attorney General’s office would in most countries, as legal advisers to the executive of the EU. My team handles all questions relating to energy law, environmental law, climate change, and the internal market for goods – meaning regulation of product market sectors from pharmaceuticals to cars. One of our key functions is to represent the European Commission in litigation.
Ken D.: Are you getting a lot of court time?
Ken M-B: I have done approaching 200 cases in the European General Court and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). At any time, we will have 20 to 30 cases on hand, in addition to work we do in other courts or the WTO. However, we spend most of our time helping policy people turn their policy ideas into actual regulatory systems and laws.
Ken D.: As you know, in private practice, we tend to get just a small handful of cases, and then we prepare them for about two years. You must have a completely different method of approaching cases.
Ken M-B: The first thing we look at is the admissibility of the case, which you can pretty much tell by reading the first few pages. We tend to act a bit more like barristers, to use a British analogy. When I handle a court case, there are a number of people within our respective Directorates General – which could include geologists, chemists, economists, lawyers, you name it – looking into the technical elements in the case, and they feed that information to us. We spend a lot more of our time on litigation strategy. Compared to private practice, we also tend to specialize more. For example, I was the Commission’s co-legal advisor for climate change for seven years. I pleaded every single case that was in front of the European Courts that involved climate change during that time, and I was involved in overseeing the drafting of every piece of law in that area. You end up having a very deep knowledge of your field, which is unique to working in a public administration like the Commission.
Ken D.: What does the team look like at the Legal Service? I am assuming you have lawyers from most or all of the member states speaking most or all of the languages.
Ken M-B: We have lawyers from all 28 EU Member States speaking all 24 of the official languages and many more! We plead cases in all the official languages, be it Latvian or Maltese.
Ken D.: Have you had a go at pleading in Maltese recently?
Ken M-B: I have pleaded in Maltese in the Court of Justice. I tend to do many of the cases concerning Malta or that come from the Maltese Courts. But I plead most of my cases in English.
Ken D.: Is there anything you miss about private practice? What you describe sounds so fascinating, but I know there are pros and cons in any workplace.
Ken M-B: There are definitely pros and cons. Here, you are working very close to politics and you are generally working on live issues that matter to citizens. There is a sense of working in the public interest, which I personally find enjoyable. And we work with a broader range of nationalities and backgrounds.
The way a law firm is organized is different, particularly a firm like Sidley that functions very well and is full of brilliant people – it creates a refreshing working environment that moves fast.
Ken D.: What advice would you give to a young person about working in the public sector versus the private sector?
Ken M-B: The Commission has over 35,000 staff; in the private sector, you get to work in smaller teams. In public service, there is enormous responsibility because so much of what we do affects an entire continent. I have had court cases where the lives of 25,000 people per year were on the line. That kind of responsibility on your shoulders is heavy. But the reward of making a difference can be great also.
Ken D.: Can you pick a career highlight from the last few years?
Ken M-B: One was reworking the whole system for regulating climate emissions in Europe. When I started here, the system dated back to the Kyoto Protocol. Today, European carbon markets function like a modern financial market. We have the primary and secondary markets and the regulatory oversight that ensures that those function. I spent a number of years building that from scratch with my colleagues, and that was a lot fun.
A number of cases that I worked on went to the Grand Chamber of the ECJ because they raised fundamental legal or constitutional issues and the Chamber followed our submissions. Those decisions are now the law of the Union, so those are definitely highlights. One case concerned standing requirements – when and under what conditions a private party can have access to the European courts. A second case debated the relationship between European law and international law. There you are contributing to the development of the constitutional law of the Union in its supreme court.
Ken D.: Do you have any particular memories of your time at Sidley?
Ken M-B: I had an absolutely wonderful time at Sidley. I worked with fantastic people, and I got great training. I was given responsibility quite early, and I was taught how to manage cases. What stood out for me was the management of junior lawyers and supporting them in developing their skills, careers and autonomy.
Published October 2018
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