Justice Minister Emily Yiolitis on Wednesday submitted bills to overhaul the justice system to the House legal affairs committee and urged MPs they be sent to the plenary before the House dissolves for the May 30 parliamentary elections.
The bills, which introduce sweeping changes aimed at speeding up the slow wheels of justice, were drawn up in consultation with a working group made up of MPs and the Cyprus Bar Association and reviewed by the supreme court.
However, CyBC reported that the bills have received a cool reception from the supreme court which had sent a letter to the House on Tuesday in which eight judges came out against and five in favour.
House legal affairs committee chairman Yiorgos Georgiou said that the bills will be sent to the plenary for a vote before the House dissolves. Opposition Akel and Diko both expressed their dismay that the government had failed to bridge differences with the supreme court.
“Today is a milestone in the much-awaited justice reform which is a priority of the current government and of me personally,” Yiolitis said after submitting the bills.
She said stakeholders agreed that the justice system needed reforms in order to speed up procedures as the slow pace has knock-on effects on society, the economy and entrepreneurship and undermines the public’s trust. “We hear the public protest daily about the slow pace at which their cases are tried. And they are right,” she said.
The minister thanked the working group, made up of Disy, Akel, Diko and Edek MPs from the House legal affairs committee and the Bar Association, for their input in drawing up the bills, as well as the supreme court that reviewed the changes.
These consultations had resulted in significant improvements to the initial bills, she said. As examples she cited the increase in the number of senior judges to coincide with the start of the operation of the courts on September 1, the establishment of specialised units of the appeals court, reference to the need to bolster the appeals court with experienced lawyers. and the establishment of a judicial advisory council that will advise the president on the appointment of top judges.
The minister also referred to the establishment of three judicial councils and a secondary board so that there is effective mutual control among the courts.
As regards appeals, particularly civil cases which are the most pending, these will handled by the supreme court and the appeals court so as to clear a backlog of some 3,500 within two years, Yiolitis added.
Concerning access to justice, citizens will have the right under amended article 144 of the constitution to ask the supreme constitutional court to hear constitutional complaints relating to cases before the district court. This would relate to issues such as the right to a hearing, the presumption of innocence, the right to religion, work and other rights, she said. Moreover, there will be no restrictions to the right to submit an appeal regarding interim applications.
“The bills submitted to parliament today, which were the subject of considerable consultation, are expected to bring deep reforms to the administration of justice in our country. I hope they will go to the plenary the soonest for a vote,” she said.
Any delay, given that the House is due to dissolve for the May 30 elections and in view of the need to appoint judges, will make it impossible to meet the September 1 target for the operation of the new courts and slow the momentum for reform, she said.
The minister acknowledged there may be disagreements but said that discussion could not drag on for ever as long as Cyprus is among the last in EU indicators as regards the speed in the administration of justice.
There were objections to the tight deadline from Akel while Diko said the government was on a PR exercise in the run up to elections. Committee chairman Georgiou, who is a Disy MP, said the bills had been discussed on many occasions by the committee and while there will always be disagreements, the bills were balanced and their approval will pre-empt a collapse of the justice system.
The committee would decide on sending the bills for a vote to the plenary at its meeting next Wednesday, he added.
Asked about the letter from the supreme court, he said that there were reservations only as regards the judicial councils and the judicial advisory council, but this did not mean the supreme court found the bills unconstitutional.
Akel MP Aristos Damianou said that after a nine month pause, the bills were now back before the House with a request they be approved urgently and with only a few committee sessions before the House dissolves. He also referred to the supreme court’s reservations and expressed doubt whether reforms that have been pending for decades could be rushed through under such short deadlines.
Diko’s Christiana Erotocritou said that justice reform was a party priority but said the bills did not demonstrate convergence of views. “It is the content, the substance and meaning of the reform that matters and not the timing, and if it is before or after the elections,” she said.
A lot still remained to be done on the content of the bills. Consultations have not been completed and will be difficult to achieve before April 22 when the House dissolves.