Minister attacked over fast-track legal system

Lawyers are demanding that the implementation of a new law designed to speed up trials of civil and commercial cases be delayed, citing the lack of material, technical infrastructure and personnel. The deadline for the new law coming into force, which aims to cut the time cases are tried in from up to 10 years to two and a half at the most, has already been postponed twice, from September 2000 to November of this year and then to January 2002. Lawyers, who have planned a one-day strike on September 18 and will be deciding whether to take further strike action at their annual general meeting, are asking that the law come into force from September 2002. While lawyers have accused Justice Minister Michalis Stathopoulos of an inexplicable insistence, the minister for his part declared that deficiencies have been made up. Despite general references to a supposed shortage of judges, court officials and courts, no data has been furnished to substantiate such claims with respect to the new law. We accepted the postponement (from September of this year to January 1, 2002). .. so that all personnel, especially lawyers, would be better prepared psychologically and could familiarize themselves with the new system. A further delay of a year. .. would mean the issue would be postponed for ever. The new system abolishes preliminary decisions at the three-member district courts and undertakes that a case brought before such a court be settled in two years at the most. Under the old system, cases before civil courts of first degree are heard at least a year after the action has been filed. Ten months may pass, due to postponements, from the time of filing until the first hearing of the case. When the case is discussed, a preliminary decision is handed down which decides certain legal points. Another date is set for the examination of witnesses, in six months’ to a year’s time at the earliest, which may be suspended for two to four years. The case will not end there, as a further hearing will be held, subject to further postponements. It may take five to 10 years before a final decision is handed down, according to the most optimistic estimates, a period of time which may be followed by appeals, going all the way to the Supreme Court. The new law, which affects commercial agreements, divorces, disputes over inheritance, etc., abolishes the phase which begins with the preliminary decision and the time-consuming hearing of evidence and examination of witnesses. Lawyers will now have to gather all evidential material prior to the court hearing. In addition, a more flexible procedure will be used for the examination of witnesses which will take place in one hearing only. The final judgment will be handed down immediately afterward. The measure abolishing preliminary decisions, said the president of the Athens Bar Association (DSA), Adonis Roupakiotis, finds lawyers in agreement, since it will speed up civil cases but its implementation is considered to be hasty. More court officials and judges are needed as well as more courtrooms, he argues. Vice President Aristides Economidis believes these conditions have not been met, since 2,000 posts for judges have not been filled and though 2,100 other posts remain open, only 700 court officials will be hired. While the Federation of Court Officials, represented by their president Roula Mitsoni, expressed similar views, their objections are focused more on the electronic keeping of minutes by a private firm. The logic of privatization, said Mitsoni. .. does not fit in with the. .. constitutionally established function of justice. To safeguard the unimpeachability of the legal system, she proposes that minutes are kept through technological means which belong to the State and with court officials who have specialized and are trained in their use. But the chronic delays bedeviling the legal system, said Economidis, were the fault of the State, which has treated (justice) with contempt, as a kind of Cinderella, at times housing it in the royal stables and in disreputable hotels, refusing to provide the personnel, material or technical means necessary for it to function.

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