The great divide

The split between the Greek and Turkish parts of Cyprus brings no end of difficulties for the island’s lawyers, who say it’s time to unite. By Kit Chellel

For lawyers in Cyprus, there are compelling reasons to end the decades long impasse between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island.

The country was effectively split following Turkey’s occupation of the northern part of the island in 1974 and despite numerous attempts at peace, the schism has remained to this day. As a result, the two parts of the nation are governed by separate legal ­systems, neither of which recognises the other.

Harris Kyriakides partner Michalis ­Kyriakides says he has had little cause to work with lawyers from the Turkish side of the island.

“It’s a different world in the northern part, even though the frontiers are now open,” he explains. “There’s not any kind of cooperation between the south and the north.”

But Kyriakides, like many Cypriot lawyers, would like to see the dispute brought to a close as soon as possible. He says the divide effectively makes trade between north and south impossible and damages the entire nation.

“This division in legal systems is a huge problem,” he argues. “Any action in the south is not recognised by the Turkish part. Any action in the Turkish part is not recognised in the republic.”

For an example of the legal difficulties this causes, you need look no further than the case of Apostolides v Oram, which is currently at the UK Court of Appeal.

British couple Linda and David Orams bought land in northern Cyprus and moved in six years ago. But in 2004, a court in southern Cyprus ruled the land belonged to a Greek Cypriot who had been displaced by the invasion. The court ordered the Orams to demolish the home and pay damages to the owner, Mr Apostolides. However, it was unable to enforce its ruling in the Turkish part of the island, for obvious reasons.

In order to apply the judgment, ­Apostolides took the case to the UK, where he called on Tom Beazley QC from ­Blackstone Chambers. The Orams and their ­solicitors, Vahib & Co, instructed Cherie Booth QC of Matrix Chambers.

The case made headlines in the UK and Cyprus. Thousands of Britons own ­property in northern Cyprus, which was now under threat. In 2006, the High Court ruled in favour of the Orams because EU legislation is suspended in northern Cyprus. However, after a ruling by the European Court of ­Justice it now looks likely that ­Apostolides will triumph at appeal.

Whatever the result, the case illustrates the problems facing lawyers in a country that has two conflicted legal systems. Elias Neocleous, head of corporate at Andreas Neocleous & Co, has, like Kyriakides, never dealt with a lawyer from the other side of the island. But he is strongly in favour of finding a solution to the dispute.

“It would be the most marvellous thing if Cyprus were to be reunified. The island is too small to continue to be divided,” he says.

Neocleous argues that a unification pact would help boost the economies of both parts of the island – particularly attractive for the north, which has suffered economic hardship as a result of the divide. He says it would allow the whole of Cyprus to tap into Turkish investment for the first time.

“If it were successful, Cyprus could be used as a base for helping Turkey, which would be fantastic because Turkey is an important power in the region,” he adds.

The issue now is whether the politicians can put aside their differences. Talks are ongoing and Turkey has called for a ­referendum on the issue by the end of 2009. For Cypriot lawyers, unification cannot come soon enough.