THIS has not been a good time for the legal establishment. Lawyers, supreme court judges and the attorney-general have turned on each other, questions have been asked about their integrity and honesty and no one has provided convincing answers. Even the Bar Association stepped into the fray trying to assure everyone that the “trustworthiness of the supreme court and all the judges was never raised nor is it being raised now.”
It may not have been raised by the Bar Association, but we doubt public trust in the judiciary has been left untouched by everything that has been heard in the last 10 days. Αll interested parties issued written announcements last week aimed at defending themselves as well as questioning the accuracy of the various accusations, while the attorney-general Costas Clerides fanned the flames of the controversy by endorsing the accusations made by his brother Nicos 10 days earlier and having a dig directly at the president of the supreme court.
The attorney-general’s intervention would have reinforced all the negative views and suspicions sparked by his brother’s allegations. After all, Clerides was a supreme court judge himself and his attack on former colleagues carried more weight and gave legitimacy to his brother’s allegations that the judges had dismissed the previous day as “low-brow, vile populism”. The attorney-general also had an axe to grind, having spent millions of euros on investigations into the collapse of the banking sector and losing the cases he brought against the Bank of Cyprus and its executives.
Meanwhile, the Chrysafinis & Polyviou law office, which represents the Bank of Cyprus and where the judges’ offspring were employed, also slammed the allegations, describing them as “groundless, in bad faith and in the final analysis, defamatory and absolutely unacceptable”.
The moral superiority and arrogance that marked these responses were symptomatic of a wider problem: judges and certain lawyers believe they are irreproachable and any questioning of their professional behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. They have no interest in how their actions are perceived by the public from whom they expect deference and blind faith in their honesty and integrity.
Yet the facts presented cannot be dismissed so lightly. Two judges on the five-bench appeal court that overturned the guilty verdict against the bank and its executives had offspring working for the C&P law office, while a third judge’s wife was employed by one of the other defence attorneys. In the other appeal, the president of the appeal court was the president of the supreme court, members of whose family (sister and daughter) had reached an out of court settlement with the bank regarding convertible bonds, three months before his casting vote overturned another guilty verdict.
For justice to be seen to be done, these judges should have recused themselves from the cases, but because the law does not oblige them to do so, they asked the prosecution lawyers to decide. Having declared their relatives’ employment at the law offices of the defence lawyers, they asked if the prosecution objected to their involvement. This is a ridiculous practice highlighting the arrogance of the judges. Was a lawyer expected to demand the removal of a judge, thus questioning the judge’s impartiality, honesty or integrity? How would the judge treat such a lawyer the next time he was in a court-room?
There does not need to be a law for judges to recuse themselves from cases in which there is the slightest possibility of conflict of interest. This should be done routinely by the judge without asking the attorneys’ view, because the assumption a judge will never succumb to human weakness that would undermine the court’s impartiality, is plainly wrong.
Supreme court president Myron Nikolatos may well have done nothing wrong as he has been insisting, but nobody would have been able to say a single word against him if he had recused himself from the Bank of Cyprus appeal case, instead of being instrumental in the bank’s and an executive’s acquittals. Nobody is going to examine the legal arguments for his decision and his position is now untenable.
All the controversy currently surrounding the judiciary could have been avoided if judges were capable of showing a little professional humility and recusing themselves when there was the slightest hint of conflict of interest.
A little self-regulation – and less arrogance – would have solved the problem, but the supreme court was not prepared to do this and now its trustworthiness and moral authority are being questioned by everyone.
That judges are now being viewed as no better than politicians in the professional ethics stakes might be unfair. But they only have themselves to blame.