Stamatiou: Raised awareness empowers Cyprus judicial system

Katerina Stamatiou, President of the Supreme Court, talks about the need to invest in the legal infrastructure of the island, the importance of transparency, and the pressing need to introduce technology in the island’s courts and embrace it.

Following the recent reforms, Cyprus now has a Supreme Court and a Supreme Constitutional Court. What does this mean and what is each court responsible for?

As from 1 July, 2023, the Supreme Court is divided into the new Supreme Court (SC) and the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). The SC is the final Court of Appeal for civil and criminal cases in the Republic. It has authority over third-instance civil and criminal appeals, as well as appeals against decisions from first-instance courts referred by the newly established Court of Appeal. Furthermore, it has the additional task to clear part of the backlog of civil appeal cases. It also has exclusive jurisdiction to issue Prerogative Orders, and until the new Admiralty Court is established, it retains original and appellate jurisdiction in admiralty cases. All Judges of the SC are Members of the Supreme Council of Judicature which is responsible for the appointment, promotion, transfer and discipline of the judges of the Court of Appeal and the first instance courts.

The SCC, as a third-tier level, has jurisdiction over all constitutional matters and references from the President of the Republic. It reviews cases within its third-instance jurisdiction, derived from decisions of the Court of Appeal and also it reviews administrative cases referred to it by the Court of Appeal. It also resolves pending administrative appeals (Backlog). Furthermore, the SCC acts as an Electoral Court and reviews decisions made by the Supreme Council of Judicature. This change ensures transparency and enables judicial review, even at this high level, regarding the actions of the Supreme Council of Judicature. The establishment of the two Supreme Courts promotes decentralization and essential checks and balances. This includes reinstating the Council of the Supreme Court, which holds cross-check disciplinary authority over the independent Justices of both Courts. These Councils act as supervisory bodies, ensuring adherence to judicial ethics, and conduct principles within the Supreme Courts.

According to the 2023 Rule of Law Report, the level of digitalisation remains low, in particular regarding digital solutions to initiate and follow proceedings and the availability of digital tools and adequate infrastructure at the disposal of judges, prosecutors and judicial staff. Do you believe that e-Justice is going to be effective?

The implementation of i-Justice, an interim solution for court filings, has been successful and well-received, fostering optimism for the potential effectiveness of e-Justice. Since its mandatory launch in February 2022, i-Justice has been widely embraced, with a significant number of registered cases and documents. I-Justice enables the online filing of pleadings and payment of stamp duties, supporting electronic communication, notifications, and case management for all courts, except criminal jurisdiction and the International Protection Administrative Court. E-Justice, slated to launch by the end of this year, will further enhance court digitalisation, including fine warrants, upgraded statistics and case management. However, the success of e-Justice relies on full digitalisation adoption by law firms and courts. Judges, legal professionals and court staff need advanced tech skills to cope with the increasing reliance on digital technologies. Continuous training will be essential to keep them informed about e-Justice advancements and ensure seamless adoption. Addressing the challenges of this digital transition will require ongoing efforts to ensure the smooth adoption of e-Justice while maintaining the security and confidentiality of electronic documents and communications.

Questions have been raised from time to time on the way judges are appointed to the Supreme Court, which has been criticised on numerous occasions with regard to the impartiality of its judges and possible conflicts of interest. Would you like to see any changes to the current appointment system?

The appointment of Supreme Court Judges in Cyprus is vested in the President of the Republic, in accordance with the 1960 Constitution. As a convention, all Presidents used to consult with the Supreme Court Judges before making such appointments, a tradition recognised for its depoliticised nature by the Venice Commission. To formalise and strengthen this tradition, recent legislative reforms established the Advisory Judicial Council. The Council comprises the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court, along with Judges from the respective Courts, serving as Members. Additionally, the Attorney General, the President of the CBA, and two qualified lawyers (without voting rights) are part of the Council, enhancing its democratic legitimacy. The introduction of this new system is expected to enhance the appointment process and further contribute to the depoliticisation and effectiveness of the Judiciary in Cyprus. By formalising the consultation process and involving a diverse group of stakeholders, the Advisory Judicial Council reinforces transparency, accountability and the merit-based approach to appointing Supreme Court Judges.

How does Cyprus’ legal/judicial system compare with that of other EU member states and what are the obstacles that still need to be addressed right away?

Cyprus’ legal and judicial system is widely acknowledged for its overall high standards, and the judicial authority of the country maintains the necessary guarantees of independence and integrity to fulfill its duties. Nevertheless, the country has grappled with a persistent problem of delayed justice, falling behind many European counterparts for various reasons that cannot be expounded within this context. As a consequence, a substantial backlog of pending cases has accumulated in the courts. Recent comprehensive restructuring efforts in the Judiciary aim to address challenges, improve backlog management, enhance system efficiency, and promote a cultural shift in litigation practices. The Supreme Court issued special procedural rules on delayed cases in 2022 to handle backlog cases more efficiently, and the new Civil Procedure Rules, effective from September 1, 2023, seek to expedite procedures and encourage Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Key reforms include the establishment of a second instance Court of Appeal, specialised Commercial and Admiralty Courts and the implementation of an Independent Court Service for the administration of the courts. Modernisation efforts, such as the e-Justice project and Digital Audio Recording during trials, are also underway. The Judicial Training School, established in 2020, contributes to the ongoing and regular training of Judges and court staff, which is of vital importance for safeguarding the high quality of our justice system. It is expected that the School will expand Judges’ knowledge in new areas of law that emerge. Securing adequate funding is crucial for an efficient judiciary and ensuring access to justice for all citizens. Raising awareness and investing in court infrastructure will support ongoing reforms and empower the Cyprus judicial system to meet modern demands, aligning with European standards.

Lately, due to some high-profile legal cases (the unsolved murder of Thanasis Nicolaou, the Bishop of Kition being found guilty of sexual assault 40 years after the event, etc.), we have seen numerous organised protests against decisions taken by the Law Office of the Republic and against perceived corruption in general. Furthermore, the 2023 Special Eurobarometer on Corruption shows that 92% of respondents consider corruption widespread in their country, 58% of respondents feel personally affected by corruption in their daily lives and 95% of companies consider that corruption is widespread. Have people lost faith in the judicial system? If so, how can it be regained?

The widespread perception of corruption by a country’s population is undeniably of concern. However, addressing this complex issue requires a broader approach that goes beyond solely holding one pillar of the State, such as the judiciary, accountable. It is reassuring that, in Cyprus, corruption is not perceived to exist within the judiciary, which upholds its reputation for impartiality and independence. In this context, the Supreme Court has proactively issued a Guide for Judicial Conduct and established a Committee to monitor international developments on judicial ethics, suggesting improvements to the Guide. Furthermore, the SCC and the SC have issued a common Asset Declaration Regulation, addressing matters pertaining to the disclosure of assets by all Judges.

How do you envision Cyprus’ legal and judicial system a decade from now? What do you wish to achieve during your term as Supreme Court President?

In the next decade, my vision is to contribute to safeguarding a modern, efficient, speedy and responsive judicial framework that meets society’s evolving needs. I am confident that the comprehensive reforms mentioned earlier will yield positive results and bring about tangible and significant improvements in the effectiveness of our judicial system. The journey of reforming the justice system in Cyprus has been challenging and I anticipate that further challenges will arise as we progress. Therefore, maintaining vigilance and a proactive approach will be imperative to ensure continuous progress. In the face of forthcoming new obstacles and challenges, our focus will remain on addressing them with dedication. I consider myself privileged to be part of this transformative effort and I eagerly look forward to contributing to the delivery of concrete results that enhance the efficiency of our judicial system and benefit society in general.

This interview first appeared in the August edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.

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