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How e-justice will help ensure no-one is left behind

According to George Christofides, Vice-President of the Cyprus Bar Association, a well-functioning judicial system is fundamental for social stability, and digital transformation has a vital role to play by pushing the sector forward and transforming it.

He shares his thoughts on the issue, and more, below:

What can you tell us about the transition from i-justice to e-justice? What shortcomings are you hoping to address and what gaps are you trying to fill?

Undoubtedly the conventional justice system and the lack of technological reforms is greatly responsible at a certain level for the long delays in the administration of justice and its current general mode of operation, thus creating conditions that have resulted in the development of a general disregard for and distrust in the justice system. It is vital to emphasise that the efficiency of a country’s judicial system is very important for social stability and economic development. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cyprus Bar Association (CBA), in cooperation with the Judicial and Executive powers, adopted i-justice, which aimed at the digitalisation of files, in February 2022. However, the need for a complete transition to the electronic era is still imperative. The application of such an e-platform will be highly beneficial in the efforts to restructure and modernize justice. The use of these tools by judges is also perfectly feasible. The justice sector can benefit from the development of e-justice to tackle challenges around access, legitimacy and efficiency. It will broadly cover all kinds of digital technologies, from complex case management and innovative apps to information technologies and the use of online communication. It will include the tools and processes used by justice sector professionals and those used by the public and the media. E-justice should include, process (re)engineering, automation, data collection, integration of systems as well as online dispute resolution, e-filing, remote court process and technologies used to digitise, store, and provide access to legal documents and evidence. Like any other tool, e-justice can easily become the focus itself, losing sight of the overarching priority of meaningful system transformation. But e-justice will offer the potential of ensuring that no-one is left behind; it will enlarge the level of accountability as well as data and user needs. It also involves risks, such as conflating quality with efficiency and automating mistakes and causing some level of bias but ultimately, the digital transformation of the justice system is imperative for the transformation and advancement of the entire judicial system.

Where do you stand with regard to the Advocates Pension Fund? What steps are being taken to remedy the problem?

The current CBA Board has identified and recognised the concern about the operation of the Advocates Pension Fund. It is evident that the original concept and aim of the Fund has changed and young lawyers, mainly, do not trust the operation and efficiency of the Fund. The CBA gave its members the opportunity to e-vote on either maintaining the existing system, transforming it into a provident fund or liquidating the fund. The outcome was that a slim majority voted for either the preservation of the current system or its transformation into another feasible one. With the assistance of experts, the Board is now thoroughly examining several options, enabling each and every member to select an option according to their needs.

According to the European Commission’s 2023 Rule of Law Report, the Independent Anti-Corruption Authority in Cyprus does not have the necessary tools to carry out its mission, which raises concerns with regard to its effectiveness. How would you assess the role and performance of the Independent Anti-Corruption Authority so far?

It is a newly formed independent institution that evolved out of society’s need to tackle corruption issues. It has not published any reports or communicated any decisions yet but the public expects it to play a significant role in the fight against corruption at every level in the public and private sector. The newly established Authority has already announced the hiring of experts from abroad to assist in the investigation of the Cyprus Investment Programme. The five-member body appointed by the President is tasked with investigating alleged corruption in the public sector – but has so far only reached dead ends. The Authority is able to issue a report on each case which can then be handed over to the Attorney-General – who is also appointed by the President – who will decide whether to take the matter further. Therefore, a discussion of checks and balances has led to a demand for greater powers to be given to the Authority. There is still hope that it will soon be in a position to publish its first reports.

Many have commented positively on the CBA’s decision to conduct audits of 26 law firms over allegations of violating CBA principles and EU directives on money laundering. Why did you decide to go ahead with these investigations? Would you say that, in the past, the CBA had been reluctant to respond to complaints about member firms?

The CBA is the supervisory body of lawyers and of fiduciary entities owned by registered advocates. The role of supervision in the AML/CFT framework is to supervise and monitor lawyers, legal entities and fiduciary entities to ensure their effective assessment and management of ML/TF risk and compliance with AML/CFT preventive measures. The CBA, in exercising its supervisory responsibilities, decided to investigate entities alleged to be involved in wrongdoing in relation to the Cyprus Investment Programme and it imposed sanctions against those entities that failed to enforced procedures correctly. I would say that the CBA punished entities within the legal boundaries but more vigorously than in the past.

More and more law firms are investing in technology and innovation. Do you believe that Cyprus has the proper infrastructure to fully support a digitalised legal environment and equip lawyers with the right technology?

Cyprus lacks infrastructure and not only in technology and innovation. There is an observed reluctance on the part of the State to radically implement technology in its day-to-day operations. However, private law firms are evidently investing more in technology and innovation, allowing them to support a digitalised environment. A great number of law firms are using technology in the management and administration of their clients today, including those that have gone a step further by launching legal technology solutions and, in particular, an indispensable legal assistant and knowledge repository for ‘in-house’ lawyers and practising lawyers throughout Cyprus and beyond.

How does Cyprus’ legal and judicial system compare with that of other EU member states and major countries around the world?

The justice system may have many state officials, judges and lawyers but it fails to work efficiently for society, according to the European Commission’s 2023 EU Justice Scoreboard. The report notes huge delays in the adjudication of cases, with new cases constantly piling up. Additionally, the public has little faith in the judiciary, believing that it is politicized and influenced by commercial interests. Cyprus falls behind most notably in the length of time required to administer justice but also in the manner in which the courts operate, as it appears that neither judges nor attorneys make adequate use of modern technology and data. Furthermore, the State is not investing enough in the justice sector in relation to the state of Cyprus’ economy, and as a result the country is ranked last on the Scoreboard. Cyprus has the highest number of lawyers (470 per 100,000) after Luxembourg and it has the longest waiting time for a case to be heard (900 days) compared to all other EU countries. There is undoubtedly a lot of room for radical changes and improvements, so as to lift the justice system to a respectable position among its EU partners.

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

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