Melina Pyrgou, Managing Director of the Pyrgou Vakis Law Firm, talks about gender inequality and the rapidly changing legal environment in a country reeling from widely held perceptions of corruption. The topics might sound gloomy but her views are anything but pessimistic.
I can still clearly remember how, when I first interviewed Melina Pyrgou three years ago, I was dazzled by the boldness of her answers, as my previous experience with lawyers had led me to expect a rather reserved and contained attitude. Since then, she has always managed to surprise me and our latest meeting is no exception.
Taught early on by her feminist mother that she could do anything she put her mind into, she became a lawyer – this had been her mother’s unfulfilled dream. Pyrgou soon realised that the study of law was an extraordinarily useful academic foundation, providing her with a broad knowledge and many, varied skills that she could use in any sector she might choose to delve into in the future. She admits, with a cheeky smile, that later she would similarly urge her own daughter to take the same path: Like mother, like daughter.
“When I started my career, I never really thought that there would be barriers against women, mainly because my mom was a feminist and a pioneer in women’s rights in the late 1970s, so I assumed that she had already dealt with these issues and I would find a red carpet laid out for me. Of course, that was not the case!” she says with a soft laugh.
In recent years, gender equality has been the topic of many debates but Pyrgou notes that, even today, there are few women heading law firms. She is a strong believer in women supporting women, convinced that women at the top have a crucial role to play in empowering younger generations of women to take the lead, although society still seems to be preventing their collective advancement. “The fact that women are still considered to be homemakers and caregivers – not only raising children but also taking care of the older family members – is holding many women back and making them decide on an ‘easier’ career so as to accommodate these needs,” she says and continues with a troubled expression. “The legal profession is very demanding; you never stop learning, you never stop reading, the hours are endless. This is the kind of career we’re in.”
Pyrgou feels that, while younger women are more confident, many are still hesitant to take the lead, to accept the risks associated with becoming public figures and to express their views openly, fearing that they will be criticized as women rather than as professionals. As our discussion progresses, I decide to raise another serious issue: the overwhelming perception that corruption is widespread in Cyprus and that many people appear to have lost faith in the legal system and its representatives.
“According to Transparency International, there is indeed a very high perception of corruption in our country. As a profession, we have received a lot of negative publicity in recent years, especially following the Al Jazeera ‘Cyprus Papers’ exposé. In the past, the Cyprus Bar Association (CBA) was not prepared to take its members before the Disciplinary Committee and, even when it did, the penalties imposed were inadequate. Lately, the CBA has done a very good job in upgrading the status of the Disciplinary Committee and has shown a greater willingness to examine cases that are reported to it and to start its own investigations – it has looked at 26 law firms linked to the ‘golden visa’ scandal – but, as a country, we’re not doing enough to take to court and prosecute cases of corruption. That also includes lawyers who may have not acted according to the profession’s code of conduct,” she states in an unyielding tone.
So, are people right to feel resentment towards those who represent the law? I am expecting to hear a diplomatic answer to my question but, once again, Melina Pyrgou proves me wrong.
“Yes, they are! Certain matters that have come to light have not been dealt with properly and the people involved have not been punished accordingly,” she says, before taking a deep breath and explaining: “Corruption doesn’t have a proper definition; it’s about the perception of each one of us, which means that it’s about our values and where we set the bar. This is important for lawyers; it’s something that you learn as you’re working. Depending on who you’re working with, the bar can be placed higher or lower. It is crucial for young people to understand that there are times when you have to say no to certain things.”
She cites a recent piece of research on young people, who were asked if they thought that giving a bottle of whisky to a driving test examiner was bribery: the majority said that it was not. “To me, this is quite shocking but it tells us how things are done in our society. This example can be used in a broader way: what it means to accept a ‘gift’ when you’re in a position of authority; what it means to give a ‘gift’ to someone who has helped you, even if it was within the scope of their duties. You are essentially condoning corruption!” she says, before adding, in a passionate plea. “There is no reason to give a gift to a civil servant who does his job or pay extra to obtain a service that you should be getting anyway. We’ve all learned that, if we ‘know someone’, we will get our job done faster. That shouldn’t be the case! It should be irrelevant whether you ‘know someone’ or not. It’s always easier to join the club but the correct thing is not to do it, and we shouldn’t do it. Society needs to be fair for everybody.”
Returning to issues more directly related to the legal profession and the judicial system, Pyrgou notes with satisfaction that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered significant technological advances, which were essential since most law firms had adopted technology but the courts were definitely not on the same page. “We are now expecting the new e-justice system to come into force soon, allowing us to use more digitalized tools, even during trial – displaying evidence on screen, or witnesses attending trials remotely. I think that lawyers are now ready for this,” she says.
E-justice is expected to take the judicial system into a new era with less paperwork and bureaucracy. “We haven’t done much in the field of justice over the years – we could have done more, so as not to introduce such extensive changes now,” she tells me, adding, “But it’s never too late and I’m optimistic that it will help the system deliver better justice because that’s another big issue.” She explains that, until now, people could avoid the courts due to delays and, since cases were not taken to court, judges did not have the opportunity to answer on legal issues, allowing lawyers to provide their own interpretations. “Justice delayed is justice denied. We’ve seen many cases where witnesses have died or the judges have been promoted and have either left a case or finished it off quickly and it has had to start all over again.”
The role of lawyer is also becoming increasingly problematic and, in Melina Pyrgou’s words, “more uncomfortable”. For reasons of compliance, she explains, law firms need to really scrutinise their clients. “We have to be very careful due to anti-money laundering regulations and sanctions, and this has turned us into investigators. We need to check a client’s transactions, background and source of wealth and, based on certain criteria, we might need to report them to the authorities. So, on the one hand, we are our clients’ trusted partners but, on the other, there is a line and, if they overstep it, we have to report them. If we don’t, we are personally exposed.”
Pyrgou and a colleague are the founders of Justice for All, a programme that aims to provide initial legal advice to people on the minimum wage and she, in particular, is emotionally invested in mentoring young lawyers. When I ask her where she sees herself a decade from now, she laughs before telling me, “I’ll probably be focusing more on my charity work because, at the end of the day, it’s really about giving something back to society, not what you may amass personally. It’s about helping people in need and making the world a better place. In recent years, I think that in a lot of what we’ve been doing, we’ve been marginalizing people instead of including them. It is very important to create an inclusive society. We may be talking about it but we’re not doing what is necessary to achieve it. Well, I’m doing it now!”
By Marianna Nicolalou