The state Legal Service is probably going through the most difficult time in its history, Attorney-General Costas Clerides said on Wednesday, as it has to deal with an unprecedented number of cases and lack of staff.
Clerides, who was briefing the House finance committee about the service’s budget, said the main reason for the difficulties was the economic collapse and its side-effects.
“I think the Legal Service is going through the most difficult period in its history,” he said.
Following the economic collapse, the state’s law office had to process a huge number of bills to meet the island’s bailout conditions.
It was also called to deal with the aftershocks of the bailout, which included the closure of Cyprus’ second largest bank, and the seizure of deposits to keep the largest one afloat.
Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed by people who lost their money in March 2013. There were also bigger cases involving billions before arbitration tribunals abroad.
On top of that, the law office must deal with numerous corruption cases that emerged at around the same time.
Clerides could not tell MPs whether there had been a spike in the commission of such offences or if they had always been so widespread but never came out in the open or went to court.
To top it off, many state attorneys had chosen to go private in recent years, leaving the office understaffed to deal with the dramatic rise in cases.
Despite the state’s financial problems, which made recruitment difficult, Clerides said time consuming hiring procedures were also an obstacle.
The Legal Service recruitment was governed by civil service legislation, causing delays in procedures.
The attorney-general highlighted the need of making the service fully independent, similar to the status enjoyed by the judiciary.
Combined with better staffing, it would help the service carry out the task it had been assigned by the constitution, he said.
“Unfortunately, at this point, the Legal Service is afflicted by serious understaffing, which we try to mend through the appropriate procedures,” he said.
Clerides said his service acted as the legal adviser of all government departments, and at the same time it was responsible for criminal prosecutions.
“It is a very serious and multifaceted task, which, combined with the effects of the economic crisis, has created a huge amount of work.”
The office was also on the receiving end of numerous requests from people who could not pay fines because of financial problems, or who faced jail for debts.
Clerides said they reviewed each case separately and provided assistance.