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Cyprus legal system has reached crisis point

Legal professionals in Cyprus warn that if changes are not made soon, the courts will be failing in their most basic function, to deliver timely justice.

IT HAS been suggested that property buyers in Cyprus who have problems with their developer can seek recourse through the island’s judicial system.

One high-profile case involving an alleged assault is still being heard by a court more than a year after proceedings started. It has required one of the prosecution witnesses to travel from the UK to Cyprus several times to give evidence. A few weeks ago, the judge pronounced that the defendants had a case to answer. Their trial continues.

An article in this weeks issue of the Cyprus Weekly examines the Island’s judicial system.

Outdated judicial system blamed for blowout in court cases

DELAYS in the island’s justice system are said to have reached a crisis point, with criminal and civil trials often taking up to five years to reach the courts.

Sotiris Argyrou, a Nicosia based lawyer and former police officer, said the Cyprus justice system had become prone to lengthy delays partly due to an overload of cases reaching the courts.

This is something that the government must acknowledge. We urgently need more positions for judges to be created in order to cope with the constant flow of cases that are coming in,” said Argyrou.

The lawyer explained that the mounting backlog was also directly related to the type of cases the courts accept and a lack in preparation of legal applications.

Speaking as a criminal lawyer, I can say that the police do not always take the legal responsibility they should and will often refer cases for prosecution before they are fully ready.

He added that the delays had several negative consequences that could result in some cases not going to trial or not being sufficiently prepared before they go to court.

On some occasions witness testimony is not properly evaluated be forehand and often these cases will be thrown out.

“It’s sometimes said that judges are not putting in the required hours to deal with all the court cases, but I don’t believe this is true. Judges will often spend their free time working on cases.

Delays in the hearing of cases not only create concern within the legal circuit, but are also a headache for many citizens who become involved in the court system.

Another Nicosia based lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, strongly attacked the island’s legal system for its sluggish dealing of civil cases.

We have a situation now where the cases that are currently being processed in court date back to 2002 and 2003. This is a chronic problem that will not go away unless significant changes are made.

According to the law professional, the delays are due to a number of factors including rising crime, a shortage of courtrooms but, most importantly, slack administration in the island’s legal system.

He explained that due to poor management some cases were destined to be unnecessarily lengthy, creating a general blow-out in waiting times.

There are currently some very complex cases on trial which should not have gone to court in the first place.

“When hundreds of witnesses are called on to give testimony, the court is obliged to hear all of them and in some instances it’s later decided that there wasn’t a case to start with.

Using the UK as an example, the lawyer noted that delays had been greatly alleviated by giving judges a more active role in deciding which cases go to court. This combined with designated teams that study how cases can be processed more quickly have eased the delays, he said.

This is something we are desperately lacking in Cyprus especially as new pressures have been created with an increase in crime and the fact that our justice system, which has changed very little since the 1950s, cannot cope with this.

He added that with the European-wide evolution of the justice system, a number of factors were inherently causing mountains of red tape.

These include defendants being more aware of their rights and their entitlement to state legal representation.

When appeals are made and then granted they take time to be processed and can clog the court system with paperwork that in some cases is unnecessary,” the lawyer said.

With the huge backlog of cases currently overburdening the justice system, there is also great pressure on everyone involved to process their work as quickly as possible.

Hasty work, however, can lead to mistakes and when dealing with criminal cases in particular these errors can have serious consequences,” the lawyer warned.

“Excessive delays in the administration of justice are a significant danger for the rule of law”

Disy deputy and Chairman of the Council of Europe (COE) Human Rights Committee Christos Pourgourides agreed that the island’s civil procedure legislation was unsuitable for today’s needs.

There are many factors that lead to undue delays in the justice system but largely our outdated justice system is to blame. The courts, for example, grant postponements far too easily and this understandably causes great delays.

According to Pourgourides, bailiffs in Cyprus must still hand- deliver court summons to citizens when in most other European countries summons are simply mailed to their home addresses.

Issues such as these accumulate causing red tape and endless delays, but also our judicial system is largely failed by lack of proper training, management and insight.

“In Britain there are a small number of lawyers in proportion to the population so out of necessity they gain great experience through handling a high turnout of cases.”

In Cyprus, however, we have the reverse situation, a very small population and a vast number of lawyers.

“Often, a lawyer with seven years work experience in Cyprus may not have handled any cases in court which is where the real experience lies.

Despite wide recognition that court cases must be concluded within reasonable time limits, the island’s justice system is struggling to cope as is evident by the vast number of complaints that are brought before the European Court of Human Rights.

As European convention states, all citizens have the right to be brought promptly before a judicial authority and are entitled to a trial within a reasonable time.

justice delayed is justice denied

Pourgourides referred to the well known legal cliché ‘justice delayed is justice denied’

This is exactly why we have all these cases being scrutinised by the ECHR,” said Pourgourides. “Excessive delays in the administration of justice are a significant danger for the rule of law.

The human rights watchdog said that a reform of the judicial system was the only sure way to alleviate the delays.

We have so many petty cases which end up going to court when they should not.

The obvious solution is to evaluate the cost of these cases and prioritise them accordingly by allocating time for more deserving cases.

Delays will inevitably be caused when cases are not dealt with quickly and efficiently and when this happens we risk losing public confidence in our justice system.

However, because of demographic factors, updating Cyprus’ justice system is arguably easier than changing systems in other larger countries, Pourgourides said.

Because of our small population and general high level of public education, with the correct reform across the court systems we can easily fix or at least shorten the huge delays we face.

By Paul Malaos

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