Minister tackles burdened courts

Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou is reportedly considering extending the hours of operation of the country?s courts and reducing the vacation time enjoyed by judges in a bid to speed up the process of dispensing justice in the Greek judiciary system where the number of pending cases is believed to exceed 1 million.

According to sources, Papaioannou wants the country?s courts to operate until 5 p.m. rather than 3 p.m. and for judges to return to work from their summer recess on September 1, not September 15, as is now the case.

Before any changes are implemented, the minister will reportedly wait to receive proposals from Supreme Court president Rena Asimakopoulou, the court?s prosecutor Yiannis Tentes and top officials at the Council of State, the country?s highest administrative court.

The proposals, which are to be submitted by October 10, are said to include the decriminalization of relatively insignificant offenses, the immediate creation of criminal sections in the major courts of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki, and the establishment of investigative units at major first instance courts. Another goal is the overhaul of the penal code which, according to one legal expert, ?was established in 1950 and reflects the social needs of that period, not this one.?

Ministry statistics appear to confirm that the country?s judicial system is in urgent need of such an overhaul. The number of pending cases at the lower court level — at first instance and appeals courts — is said to be in excess of 445,000. The number of cases relating to tax offenses alone is estimated at 420,000. Misdemeanors take an average of seven years to get to court and another three years to reach the higher court level.

Last month, Papaioannou heralded legislation aimed at decriminalizing drug use, though not its supply and cultivation, partly in a bid to decongest the country?s overcrowded jails, where a significant proportion of inmates are drug addicts caught with small amounts of narcotics.