WE DID not need a European Commission report to tell us that our justice system is the worst performing in the EU. The inefficiency of the courts has been well-documented over the years and is acknowledged by everyone including the supreme court, the justice ministry and the attorney-general.
If there was any surprise it was the survey’s finding that commercial, civil and administrative cases required, on average, 1,085 days – close to three years – to be settled. It was the worst performance of the 23 countries surveyed and three years was just the average. For all the cases that are settled faster than the average there are as many that take longer.
Although the problem is long standing little has been done to tackle it. Even the troika raised the need for an efficient justice system and referred to the failure of the government to address it again in its last review of the Cyprus economy, a year after the end of the assistance programme. An administrative court has been set up but there has been no notable reduction in the waiting time at courts. The irony.
As with most problems, the government needs to see the reasons for the delays. For example, access to the courts is so easy and cheap that even disputes over a couple of hundred euro are taken there for resolution. This is partly to blame for the delays and the reason Cypriots are so litigious. If litigants had to put down money deposits in order to use the courts, the number of cases – especially over trivial matters – would be drastically reduced. Another reason is that there are not enough judges, the solution for which is obvious and easy – the government could cut 100 public-sector positions and hire another 100 judges, which would also have the benefit of reducing the number of lawyers.
Lawyers are notorious for seeking postponements of cases, but judges should not be as obliging as they are to such requests. Fewer postponements would discourage lawyers from taking on more cases than they can handle, forcing them to charge clients higher fees, which could discourage people with minor grievances from seeking remedy in the courts. Judges could also be set annual targets for settled cases as this would force them to put pressure on lawyers.
The irony is that in promoting Cyprus as an international business centre and inviting investors to set up operations here the authorities always mention rule of law. There might be rule of law, but it is not such a great selling point when it requires an average of three years for a case to be settled by the court. Perhaps the government might be spurred into action if it considers the cost of a malfunctioning justice system to the economy.