Coming less than a week before the country’s general elections, the Greek Parliament’s July 1, 2019 adoption of a new Penal Code and new Code of Criminal Procedure were quite controversial, says Ilias Anagnostopoulos, Managing Partner at the Anagnostopoulos law firm.
The elections in Greece would normally take place in October, but due to the former ruling party’s loss in recent EU Parliamentary elections, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras scheduled a snap election on July 7, 2019. The timing was, perhaps, unfortunate. “Both codes were sent to Parliament just after the EU elections, and the opposition believes it was inappropriate for such important pieces to be adopted days before the July 7 elections,” Anagnostopoulos says. Still, he has little patience for the criticism, calling it “a politically motivated and totally unjustified attitude."
In fact, Anagnostopoulos says, it was high time for a change, as the old Criminal Code was adopted almost 70 years ago, and as a result of its many amendments in the interim it lost "balance and harmony." And the process of adopting new codes started years ago, he says, with the Ministry of Justice establishing a working group of academics, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to draft the first versions of the codes. Through a number of stages of revision, the last drafts were presented in March 2019 and then passed following a period of public debate.
Additional controversy about the then-draft codes in came from the suggestion by some that the provisions were “too lenient,” Anagnostopoulos says. As a result, there may be some changes, he reports, although probably nothing major. “My view is that since the elections did take place and the New Democracy party won, things will become calmer,” he says, adding that he believes it is better to wait and see how the codes operate in practice before deciding whether any changes are actually necessary.
Anagnostopoulos reports that the new Criminal Code has reduced the maximum penal sentence from 20 to 15 years, with the exception of life sentences, which are permissible only for a small number of offenses against the state or against life. In addition, he says, many convicted of minor or mid-level crimes can opt for public service instead of jail. Judges are also empowered to issue monetary penalties in accordance with defendants’ economic situation, he says. “On the one hand, overall sentences are lower now. However, the amount of time actually spent in jail can be higher than it was under the old Code." He adds, “the committee tried to make the Code more proportional in terms of sentences imposed and time served in prison.”
“The Criminal Code became a sober piece of work," he says, "and the descriptions of the various types of offenses have become clearer and more simple, as opposed to the old Code which provided for a complicated system of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.”
Anagnostopoulos says that the new Code of Criminal Procedure was aligned with the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights case law as well as with the more recent EU Directives on Procedural Rights, enhancing the rights of defendants and other participating parties in the proceedings. Additionally, the Code introduces a form of plea bargaining for the first time in Greece, and another change, related to the new power of the Prosecutor to issue orders imposing fines, helps avoid trials for less serious offenses. “It is hoped that these changes will accelerate the rhythm of criminal procedure because the delay of criminal proceedings is a systemic problem in Greece,” he says. “Generally there is hope that the justice system will become more rational, expeditious, and equal.”
Finally, Anagnostopoulos says that expectations are high following the center-right New Democracy Party's success in the recent elections, as the party has promised to start the economy working much better than before. “If they are successful in reviving the economy, that would mean more money for the state and more jobs for the people, which would be very welcome.” He says that the investment environment seems to be positive for Greece at the moment, “so it remains to be seen how capable the new government will be in boosting the economy and succeeding in its investment projects.” In addition, he says, the outcome of the elections will force the opposition – in particular, the Syriza party – to become stronger. “My expectation is that they will cut off from their ultra-lefty past, become more institutional in their oppositional tactics, more parliamentary, and pro-EU – which is important.” Either way, he says he is happy about the ultra-right Golden Dawn staying out of Parliament. “It is a very good result,” he smiles. “The future of Greece is a European future. It is one thing to be critical of the EU and another to be anti-EU. The Pro-EU stance is very much needed in Greece and the elections show that this will be our future.”