Greek Lawyers on strike for 13 days to protest against a draft bill amending the Civil Procedure Code

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Greece's notoriously slow and ineffective judicial system has been a long-known problem. Among others it has led to the European Court of Human Rights delivering from 1959 to 2013 some 449 cases against Greece due to excessive length of judicial proceedings, which constitutes a violation of Art. 6 of the ECHR protecting the right to a fair trial. But it was not until the recent financial and economic crisis that the debt-ridden country's government set (at least verbally) the problem among its priorities. This new political agenda is not unrelated to the pressure exerted by country's international lenders towards reforms that aim at removing existing barriers to investments and entrepreneurship. The efficiency of the judicial system is considered to be a crucial competitive parameter, with a view to promoting a business-friendly environment. In this regard, it was no wonder that a multifaceted judicial system reform was set as a prerequisite for obtaining EU and IMF financial support.

In (partial) fulfillment of its obligation, the Greek government went on to announce in March 2014 a new wave of amendments to the Civil Procedure Code. But it was not until a few weeks ago that a draft bill was submitted to the Parliament. The final draft met with almost unanimous disapproval by both the country's Bar Associations and the judges' unions. Following the turmoil among its members, the Bar Associations Assembly declared a three-day strike, which was subsequently extended for ten more days, until December 5.

Among others, the draft bill contains three major amendments to the current civil procedural law: The first one concerns the “ordinary procedure” (which applies mainly in civil, contract, tort and commercial law cases), while the “specific procedures” (i.e. family disputes, motor accident claims, employment matters, professional fees disputes etc.) remain basically unchanged. According to the proposed amendment, the proceedings before the courts of first instance will take place in writing as a general rule (with the opposite being the case today). Accordingly, oral witness testimonies, which in practice were until now the predominant source of evidence (along with documents), are substituted by affidavits, which under the current system were very common but of minor importance. The second axis of the amendment affects the enforcement of the judgment. Oppositions against the enforcement can be filed only at two specific stages and the proceedings thereon become more concise and flexible (allegedly in favour of the banks). Third, the proposed amendments will seriously deteriorate the chances of the employees as creditors to recover a significant part of their claims against their former employer. Under the current legal status, employees (along with Social Security Funds etc.) take priority over all other classes of creditors. This way they are on the top of the list to get a share of the auction proceeds. According to the submitted draft, though, the preferred creditor status currently enjoyed by the employees will be largely repealed. This is mainly for the benefit of mortgage creditors, that is, practically the banks.

Meanwhile, Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms were only recently and ineffectively implemented, with an astonishingly high percentage of the disputes still being brought before courts. And, oddly enough for a EU member state in the 21st century, the judicial system in Greece is still only marginally computerised. Almost every single document is being filed in paper form and trial bundles are getting piled up in court rooms, offices and corridors.

(Altalex, 27 November 2014. Article by Dimitris Goulas)

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