Serbia Justice Functional Review

External Performance Assessment > Access to Justice Services

Chapter Summary

  1. Lack of affordability is the most serious barrier to access to justice services in Serbia. Court and attorney costs represent a significant proportion of average income in Serbia. Pursuing even a simple case is unaffordable for many. Citizens do their best to avoid the courts: nearly 63% of the general public reported that, if they had a dispute which they thought should be settled in the court, they would decide against pursuing it; and fear of costs was the most common deterrent. Over half of recent court users surveyed considered the court-related costs in their particular case to have been excessive. The schedules for court and attorney fees are also quite complex, so court users struggle to estimate likely costs.483
  2. Lack of affordability of justice services also causes a drag on the business climate. Over one-third of businesses with recent experience in court cases reported that the court system is a great obstacle for their basic business operations, and an additional 30 percent reported that courts are a moderate obstacle. Businesses also report that the courts are becoming increasingly inaccessible to them due to high court and attorney fees. Small businesses face particularly challenges in navigating the court system, including high costs, cumbersome processes, lengthy delays, inadequate enforcement, and constantly changing legislation.
  3. On further examination however, it is not absolute costs to users but perceived value for money which undermines access to justice. Although court users complain about costs (and non-users report that costs deter them), the Multi-Stakeholder Justice Survey found that recent court users who were satisfied with the quality of services delivered were far less likely to consider the costs to be excessive.484 These data therefore suggest that improvements in quality and efficiency in service delivery could improve access to justice, by increasing the perceived value for money for potential court users, while also improving user satisfaction.
  4. Attorneys play an important role in helping court users to navigate the system, but their fee structure is inconsistent with European practice and creates perverse incentives which undermine access to justice and efficiency and quality and service delivery.485 Self-represented litigants struggle to proceed alone without lay formats, checklists or practical guides, and unsurprisingly therefore, they are less likely to succeed. Attorneys are paid per hearing or motion, which encourages protracted litigation. Fees are awarded based on a prescribed Attorney Fee Schedule, which prohibits from charging less than 50 percent of the rates prescribed. This arrangement is out of step with European practice.486 Serbia’s prescribed fees are also highly inflated and unrealistic, and in practice many attorneys charge less than the mandatory minimum because rates are beyond user willingness to pay. State-appointed attorneys (known as ex-officio attorneys) may be appointed for indigent clients but there are concerns regarding the mechanism for their selection and a lack of quality control.
  5. A court fee waiver is available for indigent court users but its implementation is haphazard, resulting in inconsistent access to justice for the indigent. There is very limited understanding among the public of the court fee waiver program. There are no guidelines or standardized forms for judges who grant a waiver and their decisions go unmonitored. Stakeholders report that some Court Presidents informally discourage their judges from waiving fees, as fees are a source of revenue for courts. Waivers may improve access to justice in some areas but without data its impact cannot be monitored.
  6. Legal aid programs are provided by an incomplete patchwork of services across the country. Municipal Legal Aid Centers cover around one-third of the country and around one-half of Serbia’s total population. Yet, most citizens are unaware of any free legal services that might be provided in their municipality.
  7. Reforms are currently underway to expand legal aid in line with EU practice by providing both ‘primary legal aid’ (legal information and preliminary advice) and ‘secondary’ (legal representation) to the poor and certain vulnerable groups. While the aims of the reform are admirable, there remains a high risk that these laws, like other reforms in recent years, will become ‘stillborn’ if fiscal and operational implications are not carefully planned or if implementation arrangements are weak. Despite several years of deliberation in working groups, there remain some concerns with the latest draft of the law. The current draft creates a bias in favor of secondary legal aid, to be provided predominantly by attorneys, while doing little to encourage primary legal aid, which would be provided by CSOs, municipal legal aid centers, and law faculties. Yet, the efficient delivery of primary legal services is likely to have the greatest benefit in terms of increasing access to justice for the largest numbers of Serbian citizens and could be delivered at much lower unit costs. It will be important to ensure that primary legal aid is adequately funded and delivered consistently throughout the country. Meanwhile, proposals for secondary legal aid could be considered more cautiously. A Fee Schedule will also need to be developed for the compensation of service providers for both primary and secondary aid. Based on previous analysis, the fees for these services should be far lower than the current Attorney Fee Schedule.487 Quality assurance mechanisms will also be required and this is another area of high implementation risk.
  8. Recent legislative amendments seek to promote mediation but there are significant implementation challenges. Due in large part to previously failed reforms, there is limited awareness of mediation among judges, attorneys, court staff, and court users. Among those who are aware of mediation services, few report it to be a useful means of dispute resolution. A significant outreach initiative to potential court users will be required, along with intensive training for judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and court staff. Further incentives should be built in to the institutional framework to encourage the use of mediation and integrate it into the court system.
  9. Awareness of law and practice is limited, even among professionals. Judges, prosecutors, and lawyers struggle to conduct research and keep abreast of new legislation, cases, procedures, and practices. Before 2014, the only legal databases with consolidated legislation were maintained by private companies on paid subscription basis. Few courts publish their court decisions, so access to these even among judges is very limited. On a positive note, the Official Gazette recently launched a free online database, and this should improve access to legislation. Efforts to raise awareness and build the capacity among professionals to conduct legal research could reap significant rewards in terms of consistency of practice across the jurisdiction.
  10. Among the public, awareness of law and practice is even more limited. Continuous changes in legislation and scarce outreach of reforms combine to prevent the public from understanding their rights and obligations, or how to uphold them in court. Businesses report that access to laws – and frequent changes in legislation and regulations – causes uncertainty that affects their business operations. A significant injection of outreach and awareness-raising of legal reforms among the public, particularly among potential court users, is required. Existing court users also struggle to access information related to their own case. Examples exist in Croatia and elsewhere of court portals which could be applied in Serbia to enable court users to access information related to their case in a manner consistent with privacy laws.
  11. Women experience the judicial system differently from men in a few ways. Women report more than men that justice services are inaccessible. More often than men, women find attorney fees to be cost-prohibitive. Women are also more likely to experience barriers to access to justice and inefficiencies in justice service delivery because they are more likely to be parties to certain types of cases, such as custody disputes and gender-based violence, which exhibit specific problems relating to procedural abuse and delay.
  12. Equality of access for vulnerable groups poses specific challenges. The majority of citizens surveyed reported that the judiciary is equally accessible regardless of age, socio-economic status, nationality, disability, and language. However, those citizens who are over 60 years of age, live in rural areas or have the least amount of education find the judicial system particularly inaccessible, suggesting that targeted interventions are warranted. Individuals with intellectual and mental health disabilities experience serious disadvantage through the process by which they are deprived of their legal capacity. Members of the Roma community, refugees and internally displaced persons also report low awareness of their rights, as well as concerns regarding fair treatment before the courts. For these groups, there is a case for strengthening the dissemination of information to relevant CSOs and community leaders about the functioning of the judiciary and basic legal rights. The experience of the LGBT community is slightly different: though they appear more than the abovementioned groups to be aware of their legal rights, they remain deterred from filing cases due to fear of reprisal and perceived discrimination.