Past and recent records of litigation proceedings before first instance courts in Greece reflect an unfortunate reality: severe delays in case trials, most of the times coming as a result of lengthy hearings and an ever-expanding caseload, as well as many consensual or disputed trial adjournments or ex officio adjournments due to fortuitous circumstances (strikes, elections, etc.).
The Greek Civil Procedure Code, as last amended by virtue of Law 4335/2015, came into force on January 1, 2016, and introduces significant amendments to the Greek civil procedural system, aiming at a more effective administration of justice by promoting a more flexible and expedient written procedure (Articles 237-238) over the oral standard procedure before first instance courts (Article 233).
According to the new Civil Procedure Code, most civil cases – and all contractual and commercial matters where the nature of dispute is monetary – can be tried within five to eight months of their registration with the court, in contrast to the previous system, which required a period of at least 24 months to pass prior to a hearing taking place.
The new procedure introduces a limited oral hearing of the case and requires judges to render their decisions on the basis of the evaluation of pleadings and exhibits submitted to them by the litigants within 100 days of the filing of the lawsuit, and any addenda must be filed within 15 days after the filing of the pleadings. Adjournments are not allowed, but this restriction is balanced by the discretion of the judge to grant an extension of the procedural time limits on special grounds (Article 148). Further to that, cases may no longer be cancelled as a result of “fortuitous events” (such as strikes, elections, etc.) and now may only be cancelled as a result of non-filing of pleadings by either party. The party that fails to comply with the rules and time limitations that apply to civil proceedings is heard in absentia, leading to a summary judgment.
This procedure does not mandate the presence of the litigants and their attorneys at the hearing of the case and does not allow for witness examination. However, where the court, having read the file of the case, determines that an examination of one witness from each litigant’s side is necessary, it may achieve this by scheduling a new, additional hearing for this purpose. Witness testimony is provided through affidavits filed along with pleadings.
Although litigation is almost always parties’ first choice in terms of dispute resolution in Greece, alternative dispute resolution processes such as arbitration or mediation remain available as well. The new procedural rules seek to support alternative forms of dispute resolution by introducing judicial mediation for private law disputes (Article 214b-c).
Admittedly, the new procedural system imposes stricter rules and time limits that may impede the proper exercise of a right, such as the short deadline of 60 days to serve a lawsuit abroad after its filing, with a potential penalty of inadmissibility. Nevertheless, the globalization of commercial disputes calls for the simplification of adjudication procedures, a direction also indicated in the Glykantzi v Greece ruling (2012) of the European Court of Human Rights, in which the Court recognized that numerous member states have already introduced simplified rules of civil procedure such as written proceedings, avoidance of lengthy oral hearings, and so on, and thus indirectly encouraged Greece to adopt similar regulations.
Recitals of Law 4335/2015 highlight that current socio-economic conditions demand speedy court procedures amid inadequate governmental resources, and therefore require a swift, affordable and – as far as possible – predictable litigation procedure. This comes occasionally at the expense of oral proceedings but arguably allows for a more efficient and prompt administration of justice. The new procedural system may seem promising, but it is up to the court to prove whether it can ultimately meet these high expectations.
By Sophia Ampoulidou, Partner, Drakopoulos Law Firm
This article was originally published in Issue 3.6 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.