The audit office on Friday hit out on the issue of multiple pensions for state officials, saying the attorney-general (AG) did not have the power to unilaterally declare something constitutional or not.

The announcement came a day after the general accounting office said it would resume paying the pensions of currently serving state officials following legal advice it received from the AG’s office.

In a statement, Accountant-General Andreas Antoniades said he received a letter from the AG where the latter advises that the decision to resume payment of these pensions was the correct one.

In the letter dated January 30, the AG informed the accounting office that “your administration’s handling of the matter [i.e. not to discontinue payment of the pensions] has contributed to the Republic not having to unjustifiably incur legal costs because, had the Treasury continued suspending payment of the pensions… the success of the litigants would be a given.”

In effect, the AG was arguing that any of the state officials deprived of their pension would have gone to court and won.

About 160 state officials, retired and currently serving, are on multiple pensions. For example, the president and four ministers are collecting a state pension while also collecting a state salary.

The audit office said the provision not to pay multiple pensions had been in effect since 1980, with a later provision in 1997, and should be “presumed constitutional”. Therefore, it added, the accountant-general “has been illegally paying current state officials a pension from their previous term as MPs, ministers, etc”.

Citing the letter from the AG to the accountant-general, the audit office said the opinion issued was in violation of the explicit provision of the legislation.

“These are unprecedented positions. The attorney-general of the Republic advises the accountant-general to violate the law and make payments in violation of it because the attorney-general himself has decided to declare the law unconstitutional,” the audit office said.

“As a reminder, only the courts can declare a law unconstitutional and, unless this is done, any law is presumed to be constitutional. And according to jurisprudence, even in the courts, when the issue of unconstitutionality of any provision of the law arises, there is a presumption of constitutionality, and before the court declares the provision as unconstitutional, this must be satisfied, beyond all reasonable doubt,” it added.

The audit office said it was important to note that the law should be applied across the board and the fact that it was selectively applied should not be a factor. For instance, it said that a former House President had his pension suspended in 2021 after being re-elected as an MP. On the other hand, the pension of a former government minister was not suspended when he was reappointed as a minister in a new cabinet.

The audit office, citing the accountant-general’s reasoning that payment of the pensions was in the public interest due to the costly legal challenges that would emerge, remarked that illegality was now “being christened” as serving the public interest.

“Given the recent opinion of the attorney-general, we believe that the government will never be able to submit bills that will be able to remove the distortions on the issues of multiple pensions,” the audit office said. It called on the House to proceed with the examination and promotion of a series of documents it sent to MPs in November.

“If the President of the Republic receives an opinion from the attorney-general that the laws are unconstitutional, they will be sent to the Supreme Constitutional Court which is the only competent body to decide.”

The accountant-general’s officer defended its position saying the Treasury adheres to laws and regulations as they apply at any given time. Whenever new legislation concerning multiple pensions comes to parliament, the Treasury would provide its own feedback.

Recently they had received a letter from Auditor-General Odysseas Michaelides demanding that payment of state pensions to serving state officials be immediately stopped as these were illegal. Michaelides cited the laws from 1980 and 1997.

After that, the accountant-general’s office said they would seek a legal opinion from the AG.

Despite an attempt by the legislature to end this state of affairs, a law it passed in 2014 was ruled unconstitutional by the courts on the grounds that a pension was the property of its recipient and could not be taken away. But it has not ruled on the 1980 or 1997 provisions.

The government has meantime decided to rationalise the law surrounding multiple pensions, promising to bring a bill to parliament soon.