By Angelos Anastasiou
A RESEARCH project that aims to evaluate the creaking justice system through the eyes of its participants has been announced by the University of Cyprus.
The research project, jointly undertaken by the University of Cyprus’ (UCY) Law Department and the Cyprus Bar Association (CBA), will be carried out by a standardised questionnaire to be filled out by all members of the judicial system – lawyers, judges and administrative personnel.
Its questions touch on time-old challenges facing the Cyprus judiciary, such as the functioning of courts, the execution of court orders, the disciplinary council, lawyers’ and court fees, the registrar of companies and the official receiver, and legal professionals are asked to suggest solutions to the problems they identify.
“The CBA has wanted to conduct this research for years,” the association’s executive director Koulia Vakis said, “so when the University approached us with this research proposal, we were more than happy to conduct it jointly.”
The announcement came on the back of claims made to the House Watchdog Committee earlier this month by CBA president Doros Ioannides that a ring of lawyers had set up a network with police stations so that state-offered legal representation applicants would be referred to them, thus receiving big chunks of the state legal aid budget.
Ioannides has also been extremely vocal in warning against the problems faced by the Cyprus judicial system, mainly owing to the understaffed courts since the freeze on government hiring was implemented early in 2013, which has meant that exiting judges, clerks and secretaries cannot be replaced.
Several critical views have been voiced towards the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of the CBA’s disciplinary council, comprising the Attorney-general, the CBA president and five executive members. A flurry of complaints filed to the council in recent years, relating to alleged fraud during the property boom, has produced meagre results. According to many plaintiffs – mostly foreigners who claim to have been defrauded when buying property in Cyprus – cases either took too long to investigate or appropriate punishment was never doled out.
Meanwhile, the Cyprus justice system is notoriously slow in dispensing justice, with the 2014 EU Justice Scoreboard, a report published by the European Commission, measuring the average completion time of a civil or commercial dispute at 505 days – the second-highest in the EU – while the Cyprus government expenditure on law courts as a percentage of GDP is the lowest in the EU. On a general ‘quality of justice’ scale of 0 to 4, Cyprus ranks second-to-last with 2.0, ahead of only Greece.
In light of the disappointing results, last week the Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou announced a series of measures taken by the government, mainly aimed at unclogging the justice system and improving justice quality.
He said these included the newly-created administrative court that is designed to lighten the Supreme Court’s workload, a legislative amendment that allows single-judge family courts to try cases, and the introduction of mechanisms to allow for the swift resolution of minor disputes.
According to Nicolaou, further efficiency is being introduced into the justice system through electronic justice and the continuous education of judges.
“We are proceeding to evaluate judicial activity through electronic logging of all the elements involved in measuring trial completion periods and evaluating the efficiency of court procedures, which will enable us to draw conclusions helpful to our efforts to improve the judicial system”, he said.
The UCY-CBA research is designed to bring to the fore the extent of these problems and more, along with suggested solutions from those directly involved, in hopes that its conclusions will be utilised appropriately by the competent authorities.
Vakis said that the research findings will be presented in a joint press conference with the University of Cyprus.
“The CBA cooperates closely with both the Justice Minister and the Supreme Court”, she said, “so we are hopeful that they will help improve the judicial system significantly.”