Covid-19 And Justice

12th October 2020
General

How the pandemic is ushering in a new era for justice and courts in Cyprus and worldwide.

Covid 19 and Justice

Significant legislative and procedural changes triggered by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak can be remarkably felt across the nations. Government announcements from around the globe have stressed the vital importance of dispute resolution mechanisms continual function to assist prompt administration of justice in these unprecedented times. Cyprus administration of justice has been under considerable scrutiny long before the existence of this current pandemic. Inexcusable delays in resolving disputes were highlighted not only by Cypriot citizens and foreign investors who have lost their trust in legal institutions feeling that the system has failed to uphold the rule of law, but also in studies such as the European Union’s Justice Scoreboard and the World Bank’s Doing Business Projects.[1]

 

HOW DIFFERENT COUNTRIES DELIVER JUSTICE

In the United Kingdom the Supreme Court hearings will continue to be streamed where practicable and teleconferencing technology will be used to allow it to operate key functions. Although the biggest challenge in proceedings with several parties in different locations is whether the technology will be reliable, in the UK a commercial court case which involved $530 million worth of assets has on its entirety been heard via Zoom.[2] The multiparty hearings which were as well streamed live on YouTube were initiated by the National Bank of Kazakhstan and the Republic of Kazakhstan.[3] The judge, barristers and solicitors, witnesses, stenographers and interpreters attended remotely breaking geographic boundaries, saving significant time compared with traditional hearings while also making it work efficiently and effectively.[4] Even the “handing up notes” in court, went virtual being replaced with WhatsApp messages during the CourtCall.[5]

Before the coronavirus pandemic knocked Singapore’s door, the Singapore courts had already implemented practices that allowed legal practitioners to submit applications for court orders via video link. After the pandemic, the online eLitigation system continued to enable the public to prepare and file court legal documents by electronic means.[6] The State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution has conducted experiments on asynchronous Court Dispute Resolution hearings via e-mail on a pilot basis. The eMediation service allowed disputing parties to mediate in the presence of court mediators connected on the network since February 2018 and continues to operate as usual.[7]

 In China Courts, including the Hangzhou Internet Court, millions of legal cases are being heard via “internet court trials”.[8] China's next decade ‘mobile court’ unveiled non-human judges powered by artificial intelligence, cyber courts, and verdicts delivered on WeChat.[9]

 

CYPRUS

Many jurisdictions have been urged to proceed to technological advancement amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Cyprus was “pressed” to make changes to the administration of justice, long before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the “quality” of justice in Cyprus is very high, the delays are considerable. The delays, in the administration of justice in Cyprus, is a result of the poor accessibility to justice, the fact that the Cypriot government is not investing in fixed assets, the low availability of training for judges on communication and finally the lack of continuous training of judges on numerous skills.[10]

 

DELIVERING JUSTICE IN A MORE TIMELY AND EFFICIENT MANNER –

 HOW TO KEEP UP WITH GLOBAL JUDICIAL COMPETITION

The Cypriot government has been ‘forced in a tight corner’ to make significant technological advances and developments in order to rebuild trust in the judicial system and more importantly to the public and foreign investors. Luckily, change is underway.

The pandemic has, in this respect, been both a blessing and a curse. In Cyprus, the pandemic has been a catalyst for change and for embracing the future. The new e-justice system, for the online filing and monitoring of cases and dockets has been showcased and it will be rolled-out before the end of the year. Changes are being made to the primary and subordinate legislation regarding notarisation and the conduct of court-proceedings. There is discussion of introducing asynchronous or virtual hearings and mediation conferences where practicable, thus avoiding the use of court buildings. This will allow for more available court rooms where remote hearings are not practicable. Audio recording equipment should be installed in Cyprus courtrooms. Recording proceedings in a video and audio format, will enable courts to make automated transcription possible in no time.[11]  It is vital to start using alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as discussion forums and Chat applications since they are more suitable to resolve disputes in the most cost-effective and time-saving way. Initiating virtual training programmes for Cypriots and foreign investors that cover the functions of the Judiciary while allowing for the investigation of judges’ portrayals in the main means of mass communication and studying how to interpret these judgments, is also critical.

A radical change could be the development of communication and interaction tools for judges, advocates and court staff where they can use resources that include practical training materials (court decisions, assignments and exercises). Such tools can integrate an overall learning strategy on intensive lifelong training for judges, to ensure quality, independence and preserve integrity.[12] An example of such a tool is the EURES Extranet, introduced by the EC, which allows legal practitioners to register and interact with each other.[13] Introducing reliable, up-to-date and easily accessible sources of information to the public including foreign investors and domestic businesses is a small but important step to rebuild public trust on delivery of justice.  

Last but not least, Cyprus’s Government must provide subsidies for new court building construction with technological facilities and equipment. Extremely important is investing in fixed assets, such as court buildings and innovative legal software but also office consumables. The Ministry of Justice came to the decision to substantially increase the number of judicial vacancies to hear the thousands of cases that have been delayed for three years or more. [14] But this is only a decision which is yet to come to practice. It has also been suggested that the Supreme Court should be divided into an Appellate Court to manage tertiary appeals and a Supreme Constitutional Court. Moreover, restructurings involve the construction of a Commercial Court and a Small Claims Court and the establishment and operation of a School of Judges.[15] A second level appellate jurisdiction (a third-instance) is also a reform which is all but certain.

It is tremendous to realise how robust-yet-fragile our economic and socio-economic system can be especially when other jurisdictions have taken the quality of justice to the next level. But we are here to demonstrate that it can be more robust than fragile if we invest in access to justice. Delays in administration of justice can be characterised as the Achilles Heel of Cyprus’s Legal System and has profound consequences to the nation’s community. It is widely known that “a lack of access to justice is itself a central dimension of poverty”.[16] Late administration of justice in Cyprus deters international investors from doing business in Cyprus and decreases confidence of domestic businesses to further invest as they get the impression that their rights are not efficiently protected and denies inhabitants the right to unlock their economic potential. This is about to change very soon.

 

[1] IPA, Functional Review of the Courts System of Cyprus, Technical Assistance Project 2017/2018 IPA, Ireland, Supported by the Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS) of the European Commission, March 2018, 11.

[2] Nikki Pender, ‘Insights from the UK’s first virtual trial’ (New Zealand Law Society, 11 May 2020) available at <https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news/legal-news/insights-from-the-uks-first-virtual-trial/ > accessed 2 October 2020.

[3] Jemma Slingo, ‘$530m Zoom trial was a success, says partner’, (The Law Society Gazette, 2 April 2020) available at <https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/530m-zoom-trial-was-a-success-says-partner/5103747.article> accessed 2 October 2020.

[4] Jemma Slingo, ‘$530m Zoom trial was a success, says partner’, (The Law Society Gazette, 2 April 2020) available at <https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/530m-zoom-trial-was-a-success-says-partner/5103747.article> accessed 2 October 2020.

[5] Nikki Pender, ‘Insights from the UK’s first virtual trial’ (New Zealand Law Society, 11 May 2020,) available at <https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news/legal-news/insights-from-the-uks-first-virtual-trial/ > accessed 2 October 2020.

[6] E-Litigation, 2020 Government of Singapore available at <https://www.elitigation.sg/_layouts/IELS/HomePage/Pages/Home.aspx > accessed 3 October 2020.

[7] The New Paper, ‘New e-Mediation Function to settle disputes online’, (6 February 2018) available at < https://www.tnp.sg/news/singapore/new-e-mediation-function-settle-disputes-online> accessed 3 October 2020.

[8]Du Qian, Ni Defeng, Xiao Wan, "Practice of Hangzhou Internet Court Serving and Guaranteeing Innovative Development of E-commerce" (杭州互联网法院服务保障电子务创新发展的实践), issue 25 (2019) People’s Judicature, 4-9, available at <<https://www.chinajusticeobserver.com/a/a-close-look-at-hangzhou-internet-court > accessed 4 October 2020.

[10]The 2019 EU Justice Scoreboard, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Central Bank, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions COM (2019) 198/2. Available at <https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/justice_scoreboard_2019_en.pdf> accessed 3 October 2020.

[11] Georgia Harley and Agnes Said, 'E-justice: does electronic court reporting improve court performance?' World Bank Blogs (22 January 2018) available at <https://blogs.worldbank.org/europeandcentralasia/e-justice-does-electronic-court-reporting-improve-court-performance> accessed 3 October 2020.

[12] European Parliament, ‘The Training of Judges and Legal Practitioners: Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Justice, Freedom and Security‘, March 2017, available at <https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2017/583134/IPOL_IDA(2017)583134_EN.pdf > Accessed 4 October 2020

[13] European Commission EYRES, available at <https://ec.europa.eu/eures/main.jsp?acro=lw&lang=en&catId=2648> accessed 4 October 2020.

[14]  'Minister pushes for speedy justice reform vote' Financial Mirror (2 September 2020, Cyprus) available at <https://www.financialmirror.com/2020/09/02/minister-pushes-for-speedy-justice-reform-vote/ > accessed 4 October 2020.

[15]  'Minister pushes for speedy justice reform vote' Financial Mirror (2 September 2020, Cyprus) https://www.financialmirror.com/2020/09/02/minister-pushes-for-speedy-justice-reform-vote/ > accessed 2 October 2020.

[16] Legal Vice Presidency of the World Bank, “The World Bank: New Directions in Justice Reform. A Companion Piece to the Updated Strategy and Implementation Plan on Strengthening Governance, Tackling Corruption”, (2012) Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

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