Judicial Reform—A Just Cause

NOV-DEC 2016|BY RAYMOND MATERA
John C. Kyriakides, Partner at Kyriakides Georgopoulos Law Firm and Chairman of the Chamber’s Legislative Reform Committee, discusses the reforms needed within the Greek judicial system leading to a more effective, efficient, and productive social and economic environment.

What is the key problem in the justice system today?

The Greek judicial system is going through a serious crisis and, as a consequence, has lost its credibility with Greek society and the international business community.

To be clear, I do not refer to corruption but solely and specifically to the time it takes to resolve disputes in Greece. The legal maxim justice delayed is justice denied couldn’t better describe this phenomenon as it has evolved over the past decade.

According to the EU Justice Scoreboard released in April 2016, Greece ranks among the last countries regarding the time it takes to resolve disputes. Every practitioner knows that in civil cases a dispute may take up to six or eight years to reach the Supreme Court; in administrative cases the petitioner will have to wait at least seven years before recourse is introduced for a hearing at the first instance level and, in criminal cases, felony offences are usually heard some six years after the filling of the criminal complaint against the perpetrator. This is a huge problem and I would like to see the judicial and legislative powers work moretogether toward restoring the lost credibility and reliability of the system. A start was done with the introduction of the new civil procedure rules effective as of January 1st, 2016. But clearly it’s not enough.

What are the obstacles to reform?

First, and foremost, there is a lack of genuine willingness and professionalism on behalf of politicians, lawyers and judges to make deep and substantial reform. Second, there are no funds to upgrade the system, to hire more judges and prosecutors, and to improve resources, such as manpower, technology, courtrooms, information systems and the like.

How do businesses and citizens suffer due to this dysfunctional system?

Everyone suffers from a dysfunctional system. Not only businesses and citizens, but the State as well. A dysfunctional legal system harms the real economy.

Imagine you run a company and a supplier provides you with defective materials. Just before delivering these items to your customer, you realize that the entire production is worthless. Your supplier refuses to accept liability so you must take legal action to be compensated for your loss. Despite the fact that as an entrepreneur you act swiftly and take all appropriate measures, it takes several years until you end up with an exequatur in your hands; and by that time your supplier has filed a petition for bankruptcy and there are no assets against which you can satisfy your claim. Has justice been rendered in this instance? Technically yes but in essence, obviously not. You, the entrepreneur, couldn’t care less about having an exequatur in your hands that is useless. There is no value left in this judgment which is drained of value by the time it has taken to obtain it.

With this example I want to emphasize that when someone has suffered an injury he or she must be given a speedy, just and fair resolution. If legal redress is not rendered within a reasonable time, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all.

As a result, what are some of the losses to the Greek economy, employment, and competitiveness?

This is glaringly simple yet it baffles me how we, as a nation, continuously fail to see the obvious.

An effective judicial system plays a crucial role in upholding the rule of law. Investors consider this a fundamental prerequisite in choosing business friendly environments. How can Greece attract investment if the perception of its judicial system is at such low levels? Greece, in the Doing Business index of The World Bank (2016 edition), ranks 61st (having lost 3 places) in the overall ranking; 82nd in ‘getting credit’ and 133rd in ‘enforcing contracts.’ A country with such a low ranking, combined with increased bureaucracy, high taxation and an ineffective judicial system, will obviously not attract investment. As a consequence, new jobs will not be created, revenues will not be generated, and the spending of households will not grow. This leads with mathematical certainty to the collection of fewer direct and indirect taxes for the State and to the collection of lower social security contributions by the social security funds. Everyone loses—businesses, citizens, the employed and unemployed and, most important, the State itself.

How can we begin to create win-win synergies among all stakeholders?

We must educate all key players, including lawyers who often oppose change, to understand the importance of introducing major reforms in our legal system. Although everyone accepts that the courts are slow in resolving legal disputes, either because the system is too complex or overburdened, in essence each time changes are introduced they are usually criticised on personal criteria and not on the basis of the economy’s interest.

It is important to change perception. The world is evolving fast and the judicial system and the people serving it must adapt to the changes with the same speed. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Delaware, Justice Myron T. Steele, at his address at the International Law Conference cohosted by the Chamber and the American Bar Association in Athens in June 2015, said that citizens and businesses of the State of Delaware were “potential clients.” Initially, I was puzzled to listen to a judge refer to litigant parties and advocates as his “clients.” On second thought however, I realized how right he was in his perception. Justice is a “public” service like any other. And it needs to be efficient, reliable, friendly, effective and attractive to citizens. If this happens it will also be so to investors.

How can the Chamber, especially through its Legislative Reform Committee, catalyze dialogue, understanding and, ultimately, change?

The Legislative Reform Committee, like all committees of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, brings together experts, hosts events such as conferences and seminars, and develops position papers, to assist in policy formation, legislation, and government action. Our most recent project, a survey conducted with the collaboration of the U.S. National Center for State Courts, is a needs assessment of the Greek justice system designed to gather the perceptions of judges, lawyers, government agencies, the business community, and other stakeholders about the strengths and weaknesses of the judicial system and to identify opportunities for change to improve public trust and confidence in the Greek courts—by the public and the international business community. The findings of the survey will be published very soon.

If the perception of key stakeholders does not change, nothing will improve. The Greek judicial system is crying out loud about the need to be modernized, to become less complex and less overburdened. It is inconceivable to think that a corporation has to wait seven years to see recourse against an act of the State, for example a tax ruling, being introduced to trial.

The Chamber, I am proud to say, is always at the disposal of policymakers to provide best practices, fresh ideas and substantial contribution to all good efforts.

What tangible benefits do you believe would result for Greeks if effective reforms were to be implemented?

Let me provide a simple example. To file for a divorce petition in the UK all procedures can be done online, by the couple, without involving solicitors and without having to go to a court hearing. The petition is filed online and the court deals with the divorce based on the paperwork. By simplifying procedures we help efficiency, which in turn contributes to fostering economic growth. Factors such simplifying procedures, making better use of existing human resources and ensuring that only those cases that really have to end up in the courtrooms, are all essential parameters of an effective justice system.

In other words, justice will be less burdensome, less expensive, more effective and more impartial for all citizens and businesses if we proceed with appropriate reform.

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