By Peter Stevenson
EIGHT months after warning that the justice system was a step away from collapse, and a month from the new judicial year, the Bar Association said yesterday the situation had now become unmanageable.
Speaking at a news conference, the head of the Bar Association, Doros Ioannides said understaffing at the courts was causing untold problems, and the situation was just getting worse by the day.
On top of the problems that already existed, there were now thousand of cases of bank depositors heading for the courts to fight the haircut agreed with Cyprus’ international lenders.
“The number of vacancies has increased significantly, the courts are overwhelmed by cases due to the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding and the problems are piling up in front of us,” Ioannides said.
Last November the association called on all of its members to carry out a one-day strike to raise awareness of the problems faced by the justice system and the courts.
“We had warned that the courts would not be able to cope and that cases would be delayed. We had warned that we were a step away from the collapse of the justice system. Unfortunately the facts have proven us correct,” Ioannides said yesterday. The vacant positions left by judges who have retired are not being filled and office staff are not being replaced, he added.
Ioannides said that despite people wanting swift justice to solve their problems, the system did not have the means to cope with demand following the mistaken impression that by putting a freeze on employing new personnel, the state would save money.
“The opposite is true though, as we will have to pay a hundredfold in compensation for delays to cases compared to what would be gained by not hiring staff,” he said.
The taxpayer will be called to cover those costs, despite not being responsible in any way, Ioannides added.
“Unfortunately we have not learnt our lessons following the amount of money the state has had to pay in compensation after delays in the course of justice,” he said.
Ioannides added that the Bar Association would send a detailed report to the President, House President, Justice Minister and party leaders about which cases were still pending, both criminal and civil. The report will inform them of the daily problems faced by the courts which are preventing their smooth running.
Ioannides said the problems were long-running and that the current government was not the only one to blame.
“Justice is the foundation of democracy and we cannot allow it to crumble,” he said.
Ioannides added that filling the vacant spots would not solve all of the courts’ problems and that all courts needed to be staffed correctly.
He said that it was necessary to create an Administrative Court which would have an online record of all cases, as the benefits would far outweigh the costs.
The relationship between the state and the courts has come under strain recently.
Supreme Court head Demetris Hadjihambis sent a letter to the House in July after ten judges positions remained vacant under orders of the House Finance Committee.
He warned that the positions would be filled whether deputies decided to unfreeze them or not.
In the letter, which was widely publicised, Hadjihambis said that not filling the positions was equal to not filling ministerial or parliamentary positions. He added that it would adversely affect the smooth running of the judicial system as an impartial authority. The Supreme Court head said he felt that parliament’s actions were putting more stress on the relationship between judges and deputies following parliament’s unsuccessful attempts recently to reduce judges’ wages.
“I would not feel so strongly about this matter if the legal services had not reached its limits due to the reduced manpower. If the new judicial year begins without those positions being filled the burden and consequences will be huge,” he said in his letter.
In June the Supreme Court ruled in favour of district court judges who had appealed against the pay cuts imposed as part of the effort to save the economy, arguing that their remuneration was protected by the Constitution.