Serbia focuses on judicial reform after starting EU talks

27/01/2014

A newly implemented court network will improve the pace of judicial proceedings by spreading cases more evenly among judges, experts say.

By Bojana Milvanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 27/01/14

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A new court network was implemented in Serbia on January 1st. [AFP]

After a number of obstacles and tasks, Serbia officially launched membership negotiations with the EU on January 21st, and the country is beginning to tackle some major challenges.

Serbia has a long negotiating process and several chapters it must fulfil in order to harmonise standards in all segments of society with those of the EU. Among the first negotiating chapters to be opened will be those pertaining to judicial reform -- a sensitive subject for Serbia due to the large number of problems and lack of citizens' trust.

The country waited nine years for judicial reform after the collapse of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in 2001. But those changes failed to produce the desired effect, leaving the country to again face the need for reform.

Government officials agree that reforming the sector will be challenging.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said the current judiciary sector is slow and ineffective. There are cases dating back to 1996 that have not been solved.

"What is the point of that justice? How will the interest of a damaged citizen or of the state be satisfied if everything is running so late?" Vucic said.

He said Serbia must carry out reforms to reach the goal of an independent judicial system capable of dealing with corruption and crime.

On January 1st, Serbia integrated a new network of courts throughout the country in an effort to gain citizens' trust in the sector and to accelerate court proceedings.

"The judicial network reform is in full compliance with European standards and is supported by Brussels," said Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic.

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The judicial sector is the least trusted sector of the government by citizens in Serbia. [File]

The courts are now better located so citizens will no longer have to travel long distances to reach them, and a more even distribution of cases among judges will improve process efficiency, Selakovic said.

Opinion polls in Serbia show that the judiciary is one of the sectors least trusted by citizens.

"Seeking justice in a Serbian court is completely pointless," Darko Todoric, a teacher in Belgrade, told SETimes. "The whole system is so oversized and slow that one is immediately discouraged and loses the will to try anything. My brother is in a property dispute that has been going on for three years, and that attempt to get justice is costing him a lot of money and patience."

The justice ministry is also opening a quick response office to help citizens, primarily business investors, resolve legal procedures with fewer delays.

Dragana Boljevic, Belgrade Appellate Court judge and president of the Judges' Association of Serbia, told SETimes that the ineffectiveness of the judiciary is not the only problem.

"Insufficient independence of the judiciary and low quality of legal protection are the chief problems in the judiciary, and should be the first to be solved," Boljevic said. "Insistence on ineffectiveness as the main problem of the judiciary justifies the demands of politics for the judiciary to operate as a factory -- faster and more -- and conceals the state's responsibility for the conditions in which the judiciary functions."

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Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said the state's judicial sector functions too slowly. [File]

She said certain judges, due to the uneven distribution of work and poor organisation of the courts, are handling too many cases, which causes delays.

Nonetheless, Boljevic said the new network will speed up the work and bring justice to citizens.

Representatives of the EU Delegation to Belgrade said Serbia is demonstrating the will to deal with the decades-long problems in the judiciary, but added that much work remains to be done.

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"Serbia has good legal regulations that are largely harmonised with European standards. Attention needs to be devoted to the implementation of those standards and that will be the most important measure of success of judicial reforms in Serbia," the EU Delegation told SETimes.

Lauding the country's reform efforts to date, EU Delegation to Serbia chief Michael Davenport told SETimes that citizens will see more benefits and improvements during the negotiating process.

"Some things will develop faster during the talks, primarily when it comes to the judiciary. Serbian citizens will soon have a more efficient judiciary," Davenport said.

What steps should be taken to increase citizens' trust in the court system? Add your opinion to the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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