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Our View: Piecemeal measures will not speed up dysfunctional justice system

EVERYONE agrees that the Cyprus justice system is dysfunctional. Speaking at the House legal affairs committee last week and on Wednesday the supreme court president Myron Nicolatos also backed this view, noting that “excessive delay in the dispensing of justice constitutes a significant risk of causing injustice and circumventing the principles of the rule of law.”

He added that the “importance of dispensing justice without delays has been repeatedly stressed” and sounded a warning about the huge number of cases pending before the courts and the inability of trying them within a reasonable time. The chairman of the committee Giorgos Georgiou said that Cyprus was in the bottom places of the “EU Justice Scoreboard” that measured the effectiveness of a country’s justice system.

One of the reasons for the court delays was the lack of resources. Nicolatos pointed out that of all EU countries Cyprus spent the smallest percentage of GDP on the justice system. In the EU an average of €180 per person was spent on the courts while in Cyprus only €25. On average there were 45 judges per 100,000 of population in EU countries while in Cyprus there were only 12. Nicolatos gave these figures to justify the supreme court’s request for the appointment of 30 new judges in 2017. The finance ministry approved the appointment of only four, as part of its policy to keep public appointments to a minimum.

Nicolatos may have been justified to complain about the shortages in the number of judges, but he only made one suggestion with regard to speeding up court procedures and this related to the supreme court. He wanted restrictions placed on the decisions (final or interim) of civil cases on which appeals could be filed in the supreme court. Because of the large number of cases, the average time needed for a decision on an appeal in a court case was a staggering five years. Restrictions had existed in the past but were lifted by the legislature in 2008 thus increasing the delays.

There are even bigger delays in the district courts, which could be drastically cut if judges were stricter with lawyers, turning down their frequent requests for postponements of hearings. This may sound simplistic, but the tolerance shown by judges to lawyers unprepared for cases does not help the situation. A litigant often changes lawyer before a hearing to buy time – the new lawyer has to read up on the case. This might not solve the problem of excessive delays but it could make a small difference.

Meanwhile the justice minister, Ionas Nicolaou, announced that as part of the government’s drive to speed up court procedures, tenders for electronic justice would be invited this month while a commercial court would also be set up. We doubt piecemeal measures will make a difference, at a time when a radical overhaul is required.

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