A circular sent to the presidents of the different courts by President of the Supreme Court Myron Nikolatos comes as the latest initiative to tackle the huge delays in the administering of justice that has been a constant embarrassment for Cyprus. Nikolatos, referring to the “unprecedented delays”, has told judges that any failure to deal with the matter “raises the issue of examining disciplinary responsibility.” He also gave practical advice – cases set for a specific date should, as a rule, be tried, but if they were postponed because of inadequate time, every effort had to be made to ensure they were completed on the new date set.
This circular should have been sent many years ago as the unprecedented delays are nothing new – they have plagued the justice system for decades without anything being done. The Anastasiades government, responding to criticism about the delays from the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the IMF, decided to reform the system. It brought in experts from abroad to submit proposals and a reform package has been formulated that envisages the setting up of new courts, digitalisation, more efficient administration procedures and the hiring of more judges among other things.
The government has already opened 35 positions for new judges while the supreme court has introduced, on the recommendation of GRECO (Group of states against corruption), a rigorous selection process to put paid to claims that appointments are nepotistic, allegedly favouring the relatives of judges and big lawyers. This is an indirect admission that the standard of the lawyers hired to be judges in the past was questionable and could be one of the many reasons for the delays. A judge that had limited knowledge of the law would take much longer to complete a case, not be able to control court proceedings and could also be susceptible to the delaying tactics of lawyers.
It would be unfair, however, to place all the blame for court delays on judges, because there are other factors at play. The large number of lawyers trying to generate more business is also a factor because, arguably, the main reason for the delays is the huge number of cases before the courts. A former president of the supreme court a few years ago complained that Cypriots were extremely litigious and unwilling to compromise when they had differences with someone, taking trivial disputes to court and wasting the courts’ time. While there is some truth in this, it could be argued that the situation would not have veered out of control if lawyers encouraged clients to settle out of court rather than take a trivial dispute to court.
Then again, the easy access to the courts which incurs no cost other than the lawyer’s fees encourages everyone to be litigious. If the courts imposed a significant monetary deposit for every case to discourage people from wasting a court’s time with trivial disputes and claims the number of cases would be drastically reduced. For instance, not every public employee that missed out on promotion would file an appeal if they had to put up a deposit of €10,000 which they would lose if their appeal failed; a householder would not seek redress in court because his neighbour erected a fence in the wrong place if he had to pay a deposit; nor would a dispute over €300 go to court as happens now.
Putting a price on access to the courts may appear undemocratic but the easy access that exists now clogs up the system and is even more harmful to our democracy and the rule of law because it prevents the administration of justice. As we are constantly reminded, “justice delayed is justice denied” and this is the problem we suffer in Cyprus, which ranks among the slowest countries in the world in administering justice. While the EU average for completing a case is eight months, in Cyprus it is between five and seven years. These delays help people that violate the law – ‘take me to court’ is a common response of people refusing to settle a debt – rather than law-abiding citizens.
By all means crack down on judges that are contributing to the delays in the courts – perhaps the supreme court should set targets for completion of cases – but this will not, in itself, substantially reduce the delays. It will slightly improve the situation in combination with the hiring of more judges and the other reforms under way, but the problem will persist until the volume of cases before the courts is drastically reduced.