By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mario Draghi's broad unity government has overcome deep divisions to agree to a contested justice reform, which the European Union has demanded as part of a deal to unlock billions of euros in recovery funds.
Italy has long been dogged by a dysfunctional, painfully slow justice system, but repeated attempts to overhaul it have failed to significantly reduce backlogs in many courts.
Sharply opposing views between the parties have complicated efforts to improve the situation, but Justice Minister Marta Cartabia managed to reach a compromise deal late on Thursday that the government hopes will improve efficiency.
"Italy has taken a significant step forward in modernising the justice system and speeding up trials," said Regional Affairs Minister Mariastella Gelmini, a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
The draft law will now go to parliament for approval.
Perhaps the most contested part of the reform is yet another revision to the statute of limitations, which automatically halts trials if a verdict is not reached within a set time limit from when the crime was committed.
Italy's justice system has three degrees of judgment, meaning defendants can make two appeals.
The 5-Star Movement, the biggest party in parliament, has long pushed to remove time limits on prosecutions once an initial verdict is reached, arguing that many offenders, especially white collar criminals, avoid justice by using legal tactics to delay court proceedings.
Cartabia struck a compromise by freezing the statute of limitations at the end of the opening trial for a number of crimes, including corruption, but set time curbs on the subsequent appeals that both defendants and prosecutors have a right to pursue.
While 5-Star ministers approved the accord, there was dissent in the ranks of the party, which fears that its core message of zero tolerance for graft is being jeopardised.
"I appreciate the work done by Minister Cartabia, but I would not sing victory. I am not happy about the statute of limitations," said former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who is looking to take control of the splintering 5-Star group.
Among less contested parts of the reform were measures to encourage defendants to seek plea-bargain deals and a norm that should compel prosecutors and preliminary judges to only bring cases to trial where they believe they can secure a conviction.
Thousands of support staff will also be hired in courtrooms to help judges speed up proceedings.
Recent data from the justice ministry has underscored the problems facing Italy's criminal courts, with initial trials lasting 478 days on average between 2019/20, up 22% on the previous judicial year, while first appeals took on average 1,038 days, up 24%. The subsequent and final appeal to the Supreme Court took on average 287 days, up 111%.
A report issued this month said the situation was worse in civil and commercial cases, where trials took an average of more than 500 days for the first sentence, almost 800 for the appeal and 1,300 for the final judgment - the worst rate in Europe.
A reform of civil law is still being worked on.
(Additional reporting by Angelo Amante and Giulia Segreti; Editing by Alex Richardson)