CYPRUS: Government determined to introduce radical justice reform

8 mins read

Cyprus is adamant on following a roadmap to reform a sluggish justice system that is befitting of an EU member state while also trying to restore confidence among quality investors turned-off by the legal labyrinth.

Justice Minister George Savvides said the government has taken its decisions and is going ahead with sweeping changes no matter what the cost.

In comments to ANT1 TV, Savvides said the revamp will do away with lengthy delays in the justice system which is costing the country dearly as cases languish in the courts for years.

He said the justice system is in a for a total overhaul as the government plans to introduce specialised courts while creating a second Supreme Court to help speed up the resolution of cases before the body.

"We will split the supreme court into two, creating, essentially, two supreme courts. One will be the Supreme court and the constitutional court,” said Savvides.

“These courts will not be second instance as they are today, they will be third instance courts, while we will create a new second instance court to deal with appeals consisting of 16 new judges to be appointed and who will preside over all appeals of decisions issued by first instance courts," he added.

The government has already approved the hiring of 32 district judges to handle the backlog of cases, as well as the creation of new courts in all towns.

Among the new courts to be created are specialised courts such a commercial and shipping court to speed up the island’s notoriously slow justice system, especially for business disputes.

The commercial court to preside over business disputes in which claims exceeded the amount of EUR 2 mln is expected to speed up the resolution of such cases.

Savvides said the shipping court is expected to effectively establish fast-track procedures for specific cases while facilitating efforts by the Deputy Ministry of Shipping to promote Cyprus as a shipping service centre.

"There are plans to create a state-of-the-art courthouse to host the Nicosia District Court which is expected to be built by 2024 costing the state some EUR 70 mln.”

In the meantime, the state will commission the premises of the former Filoxenia Hotel to temporarily set up the appeal court and the commercial and shipping courts.

Savvides said the government will proceed with the reforms no matter how high the cost, as there is an urgent need for swift democratic procedures in Cyprus.

Former MP and head of Frederick University’s Law Department Christos Clerides argued reforms in the justice system should be carried out the soonest possible.

He believes the current justice system is not fit for its purpose, noting that adjudication is delayed to such an extent that there is a fundamental breach of justice.

“Delivering justice with a serious delay is like not delivering justice at all,” Clerides told the Financial Mirror.

10 years for justice served

According to the European Commission's "2019 EU Justice Scoreboard," the time needed to resolve civil, commercial and other cases in Cyprus has skyrocketed from just under 600 days in 2010 – to almost 1200 days in 2017.

“In fact, we are at the top of the list in Europe in terms of delays. From my experience, a case could take 4-5 years, plus another 6 years in case of an appeal. That is, a total of about 10 years,” said Clerides.

What is more alarming, said the law professor, is the quality of judicial rulings delivered over the past years is not of the standard one would expect.

“This also has to do with a large number of backlogged cases, the delays, the pressure judges are under means they do not study cases thoroughly.”

Clerides argued it is also a matter of the quality of those appointed, noting that Cyprus lacks a system of selecting the best candidates for the job.

“Recently we have seen publications referring to cases in which the presiding judges had a conflict of interest, undermining public confidence in the institution of justice.”

Clerides said the reforms it will go a long way in clearing the backlog. It is estimated that there are currently 4,000 delayed appeals pending before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, operating since 1964 as a single appellate court, will be replaced by a third instance five-member constitutional court and a five-member supreme court.

But at the heart of the judicial system and will be a new 16-member Court of Appeals where all cases of appeal will go.

Clerides said it will take a few years before the reforms start paying off, with some problems regarding specialisation remaining unresolved.

He said the lack of judges with specialised knowledge will be an obstacle to improving the quality of justice and the speed with which it is delivered.

Reforms have taken so long to be implemented due to the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry not taking action earlier, said Clerides.

President of the Fiscal Council Demetris Georgiades said that the state needs to proceed with adopting measures to reform the justice system making it more trustworthy to outsiders, especially investors.

He argued that the lack of transparency coupled with a cumbersome justice system is putting off quality investors from eyeing Cyprus as an investment destination.

“An investor could spend years lost in the labyrinth of the state bureaucracy, as they have to issue an unnecessarily large number of permits, which in many cases overlap,” said Georgiades.

But the biggest turn-off for investors is the lack of transparency and the delays in the justice system.

“The be-all for setting up a business-friendly environment is a country’s justice system,” said Georgiades.

Although Cyprus is considered to be an attractive investment destination, “when the call for tenders was made for the casino we had only one bidder”.

He said investors want to feel safe, knowing that deals and contracts signed with local counterparts will be kept, but what they see is a slow justice system which takes years to deliver a verdict on disputes.