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Serbia: Judiciary Can See the Light at the End of the Tunnel

March 16, 2015

Tony Verheijen, Country Manager for Serbia B92 Blog

They say the difference between a bad and a good lawyer is that the bad one can let the case drag out for several years, while the good one can make it last even longer.

Well, I believe many of you would apply this common joke to all of Serbian judiciary. But, while the situation is not rosy, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

This conclusion comes from the report called the Serbia Judicial Functional Review, recently done and presented by my colleagues.

The report showed the notion that Serbia didn’t have enough judges to be a misconception. It rather has far too many judges:  nearly double the ratio of judges-to-population than the EU average, with over 39 judges per 100,000 inhabitants. As a result, the incoming caseloads per judge in Serbia are approximately half the EU average and are also lower than most regional neighbors. Even so, judges, prosecutors and staff throughout the system report feeling busy and overburdened with work.

The reasons lie in the management of the judicial system, which does not facilitate effective service delivery. Therefore, the Functional Review focuses on systemic problems and their possible solution.

" The report showed the notion that Serbia didn’t have enough judges to be a misconception. "


One important systemic problem is the way the resources are allocated. Budget planning does not reflect service delivery needs, recent reforms, or Serbia’s accession aspirations. Resource planning is not well coordinated, even worse, instead of collaboration there is often occasional competition among stakeholders responsible for different resources. As a result, productivity is low and the judiciary represents poor value-for-money for citizens (and for the State itself).  Given the current fiscal environment, the justice system will need to learn to ‘do much more with less’ through better planning and coordination in resource allocation and execution.

A further systemic problem is that budget allocations do not consider court performance, hence providing no incentives for courts to perform better. Based on international experience, strengthening performance management in courts by recognizing and rewarding higher-performing courts and implementing performance improvement plans for under-performing courts would help improve services.       

The good news is that, against the odds, production and productivity in a number of courts has improved over the last three years. There are several courts – often outside of Belgrade, like in Subotica Basic Court and Vrsac Basic Court – which perform well against many important indicators. Unfortunately, this good performance is often driven by the personal initiatives and goes unrecognized. Sharing and replicating the lessons learned to other courts is easy and not costly, isn’t it?

The report also recommends the introduction of a standardized approach to routine aspects of case processing such as checklists and templates for simple cases. It also advocates tightening the scheduling of court hearings, including conducting hearings throughout the day.

The Review highlights that justice is rather unaffordable for average citizens, largely due to high attorney and court fees. In particular, the poor are not well served.  According to the World Bank, these problems can deter investment and cause a drag on the business climate. Over two-thirds of businesses report that lack of affordability alone is either a great or moderate obstacle to their operations. My colleagues here, among other things, recommend simplification of the court fee structure and standardization of the court fee waiver process to ensure basic service delivery for the poor.   

I am here highlighting some of the findings of my colleagues. For those of you who want all the details, please visit here.

Looking ahead, a series of tough decisions will need to be made to align the justice system with EU standards, while remaining largely within current fiscal envelopes. Fortunately, Serbia is entering the negotiation phase for Chapter 23 with a sound knowledge base – indeed, better informed than any candidate country that has gone before it. There is light at the end of the tunnel.  With the requisite commitment and will, alignment with EU levels of performance is achievable.