By Poly Pantelides
UNLESS THE antiquated system Cyprus inherited from its former colonial government is overhauled, the move to digitise court procedures will make little or no difference to the public, a member of the Bar Association has said.
Cabinet decided on Wednesday to invite tenders to digitise court procedures and improve the system by offering online services including the ability to file a case, submit documentation and monitor a case’s progress.
“This is a groundbreaking project aimed at helping to solve the chronic problems facing the courts, due to a large workload in handling various court cases,” deputy government spokesman Victoras Papadopoulos said on Wednesday.
The justice ministry said all courts at all districts will be part of the project but the details, such as whether the public will have online access to systems, have not yet been fixed.
However, the procedural rules to which Cyprus’ courts apply date back to the 1950s and have remained more or less intact, with the island’s judicial system still following rules which were laid out almost six decades ago. The proposed changes do not tackle this aspect of the legal system.
Cyprus has been previously told, both from foreign visitors and by stakeholders who have to work with the system that it needs to modernise and speed up court procedures. One such call last year came from visiting US judge Virginia Kendall who warned authorities that a barrier to successful prosecution of human trafficking cases, for example, were delays, which could enable traffickers to bribe or threaten victims.
The courts’ digitisation project is expected to include useful changes such as tracking cases online. Lawyers will no longer need to travel to different cities to attend a hearing only to be told the hearing was postponed, and they won’t need to send to court to file a case.
A 30-year-old Nicosia-based lawyer said monitoring a case’s progress online would entail a more efficient use of her time. The lawyer – who asked to be anonymous – works at a smaller law-firm and needed to drive to and from Nicosia and Larnaca this week to file a case. The lawyer said it might take days and several trips to court between putting in a request for the file of a closed case and making copies to take back to the office. This is because for Nicosia district court, closed case files are kept in the suburb of Latsia, which a messenger visits once a day. If documents are lengthy, it could take days before a messenger makes copies. Digitising the system “won’t fix everything all of a sudden. But it will help the courts be more organised,” the lawyer said.
But the Bar Association’s Laris Vrahimis has warned that useful as digitisation might be for judges, messengers, and the registrar, they will do little to address deeper administrative problems behind procedures whose structure was laid out in 1954.
“The public’s problem is that it takes five years for a case to go through the courts,” Vrahimis said.
The whole procedure – “from filing a case to seeing it through the end” needs to change, he said. But that falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, which has sole authority over the body of law that sets out the rules courts follow for civil procedures.
Cyprus’ legal system follow English practice and procedure but have been stuck on the 1954 version, laying out a process that was relevant to the colonial government of the time. Almost 60 years later, Cyprus still follows the same rules which have been subject to only minor changes.
“[Digitisation] changes need to take place on the backdrop of building better procedures,” Vrahimis said.
The Supreme Court’s former president, Petros Artemis who retired this June, said last November the justice system was in danger of collapsing if measures were not taken to reduce the time it took to process civil, criminal and administrative cases.
Even further back in 2006, a district court president described Cypriots as “trial-maniacs” turning to courts over trivial issues and minor disputes such as building permit disagreements. The current administration has said it will introduce administrative courts to alleviate the Supreme Court’s work load.
An indication of the slow pace of fundamental change is Vrahimis’ own initiative back in 2002 to set up a free legal portal providing an online inventory of Cyprus’ legislation and legal documents, including decisions from the supreme court and district courts. The state proved unable to provide the service so the Bar Association went ahead and launched CyLaw last year.
Vrahimis said efforts go back more than a decade to update the system based on the reformed civil procedure rules of the English system from the late 90s.
“Those efforts collapsed,” he said.
“The responsibility is solely with the supreme court which also carries the responsibility for the failure [to implement changes],” he said.