Serbia Justice Functional Review

External Performance Assessment > Access to Justice Services

c. Access to Information

i. Access to and Awareness of Laws

  1. Access to and awareness of laws, a pre-requisite to access to justice, is limited in Serbia. Prior to 2014, the only legal databases where statutes in their complete form were available were those established and maintained by private companies. Private databases were available for an annual membership of approximately 400EUR.551 The National Assembly publishes legislation only as adopted without inserting changes in existing statutes. Ministries and other institutions that can adopt regulations do not always publish them.
  2. The beginning of 2014 brought a significant change in availability of laws and other regulations. On January 1st, 2014, the Official Gazette (Službeni Glasnik) launched its online database where all legislation, including regulations adopted by bodies other than the National Assembly (e.g., ministries and courts), are available free of charge. The extent to which the new Official Gazette’s legal database will increase effective availability of legislation remains unknown.
  3. Nonetheless, court users struggle to find access information. In the 2013 ACA Court User Survey of court users, nearly half of all respondents reported that they had no information or were for the most part uninformed about the procedure that brought them to court.552 The Survey also found that for those court users who were informed about the proceedings, over 40% reported that they got their information from direct contact with court staff, and 23% took information from other peoples’ experiences. Focus groups suggested that people, regardless of their education, general awareness, or computer literacy often do not know where to find regulations and miss practical information concerning their rights or procedures for their protection. Those who have used the internet to obtain information on law and procedure say their search was time-consuming and frustrating because they had to visit a number of websites that sometimes offered unclear or different information from what is actually practiced.553
  4. Frequent changes of legislation also undermine individuals’ access to justice. Seasoned lawyers also find it difficult to know what the current law is, given the frequent changes. Judges acknowledged to the Review team that they too struggle to be up to date with the constant amendments, especially when laws may be interpreted in more than one way and the interpretation of an official authority (such as a court or ministry) is lacking. For citizens, the challenge is compounded to the extreme.
  5. Businesses report that frequent changes in laws and regulations create problems for their operations.554 In focus group discussions, business representatives complain that laws are not accompanied by information that is easily available to companies, and high attorney fees deter them from seeking legal advice. As stated by the owner of an office supply company:

    “The most severe problem in small companies is lack of information, since we are simply not able to deal with these things, with different new regulations popping out every day, we are simply stunned. We don’t have legal departments, so that we can tell them – here are these invoices, do collect this money or sue them. We have to do it on our own, and I can’t do my job and do this at the same time, so I lose money. That’s why it’s very expensive, really time consuming and burdening. And lawyers also charge a lot for it, with fees and everything“.

  6. Farmers report similar problems, and complain that they find out about legislative changes too late. As one farmer in a focus group stated, ‘provisions should stay the same for a longer period of time, so that peasants get informed about them and know what to do if they have a problem, how to react’.555
  7. Individuals and companies would welcome free access to practical guidelines, authoritative interpretations, and commentaries following new legislation. Where they exist, useful commentaries on legislation by relevant experts are not available free of charge. Even the above mentioned Official Gazette’s database, which now provides all laws and regulations free of charge, provides commentaries on legislation only to subscribed and paying users.

ii. Access to Court and Case Information

  1. Access to court information is a necessary pre-requisite to enable a court user to engage with the logistical and procedural aspects of their case. Ensuring that users are better informed can reap significant benefits in terms of efficiency. As outlined in the Efficiency Chapter, the Vrsac Basic Court prepared checklists of information for users, which has smoothed and improved efficiency in case processing.
  2. In the Multi-Stakeholder Justice Survey, 64 percent of the public and 76 percent of business sector respondents reported that the judicial system is accessible in terms of general access to information. Respondents agree that access to information on how to initiate judicial proceedings is not a significant barrier in efforts to file a case in court. On a further positive note, and in contrast with 2009, a higher percentage of business representatives report that information is accessible (see Figure 104 below).
  1. However, the availability of information on misdemeanor proceedings is worsening. In 2013, 24 percent of respondents complained it is hard to collect information about misdemeanor cases, compared with only 6 percent of respondents in 2009.557 Access to information in misdemeanor cases is particularly important because the users in these cases usually research and represent themselves. Easily accessible information in lay formats could thus also improve the efficiency and quality of proceedings in Misdemeanor Courts.
  2. Access to information is a particular challenge for seniors and the least educated citizens.558 In the Multi-Stakeholder Justice Survey, 58 percent of the elderly and 63 percent of the least educated expressed that difficulties in finding the necessary information influences their decision to initiate a judicial procedure or not.559 This information should be borne in mind when planning how to make information on procedures more accessible.
  3. Information on how to enter complaints against the courts is also not easily accessible. For further discussion about complaints mechanisms, see the Quality Chapter.
  4. Respondents use several sources of information when looking for information about their case. This varies in frequency depending on the type of case. In criminal cases, lawyers are the most common source of information at 44 percent, followed by unofficial sources such as friends and media, and then official court sources of information. Unofficial sources of information prevail in misdemeanor cases (50 percent), followed by official court sources (39 percent). In civil cases, lawyers and official court sources of information are used most frequently (34 percent). As for the business sector, lawyers are the prevailing source of information (63 percent), and somewhat less than half of companies (47 percent) use official court sources.
  1. Respondents to both Multi-Stakeholder Justice Surveys indicated that among official sources of information, court staff and the registry desk were used most often. Over 70 percent of respondents in the public and business sector that used official information sources were satisfied.561 Little mention was made of using printed materials from the court (e.g., informational brochures or leaflets), with only 3 percent of respondents relying on these sources of information. It may be that such information is not readily available at courts. During field visits, the Review team sought without success to obtain such brochures and leaflets on basic procedures.
  2. Victims of crime are at a particular disadvantage when accessing information and navigating the court system. All EU Member States (except Latvia) offer a free-of-charge service to inform and help victims of crime, in recognition of their vulnerability and specific justice needs. Among those countries monitored by the CEPEJ, Serbia is also one of only five states that lacks such a service.562 In Serbia, such services are provided on a voluntary basis by a patchwork of local CSOs.
  3. There is considerable room for improvement in making information available online. Some courts have rich websites (for instance the Leskovac Basic Court), while others do not have a website at all. Some CSOs also offer useful practical information. Providing online information enables potential users to conduct research without assistance, prevents unnecessary travel to the courthouse, and can improve the efficiency of court processes. In 2013, only 24 percent of survey respondents563 indicated using the internet for information since websites do not contain useful information and litigants do not know how to access these websites. In 2012, internet penetration in Serbia was approximately 60 percent,564 but this will invariably rise in the medium term and the Serbian judiciary should be prepared for when it occurs. In the meantime, offline versions should also be readily available, particularly for rural, elderly, and the least educated groups. For discussion of online resources, see the ICT Management section.
  4. Availability of court information saw significant progress with the introduction of a web portal, the Sudova Srbije. The portal provides information on the status of ongoing procedures in first instance courts, including hearing dates. Due to privacy constraints, the portal can only be accessed by those who know the case number, which causes some confusion for parties and lawyers alike.565 Further, the portal does not currently provide information about matters before appellate courts and the SCC. None of the four appellate courts or the SCC post daily schedules online. Hence, parties to proceedings are not in a position to know when an appellate court or the SCC will hold deliberations in their case. The Constitutional Court, which used to announce its daily schedule, have since abandoned this practice. Croatia’s ‘e-case’ portal provides greater coverage as well as more detailed information. It has better managed the privacy constraints by providing the initials of the parties and their case file numbers to enable easy identification. Reforms similar to ‘e-case’ would be readily implementable and would improve access to court information in Serbia.
  5. Court notice boards could also provide better information to court users. As court users often are required to wait in public areas for hearings or services, this provide a low-cost and easy-access option for raising awareness to anything from changes in procedure, lay guides, checklists, lay formats of annual reports etc. Court staff, under the direction of the Court President, could be more proactive in enhancing the visibility of notice boards and ensuring that they provide accurate and relevant information for court users.

iii. Access to Court Decisions

  1. The SCC is the only court with regular publication of all its decisions. The Constitutional Court has made many of its decisions available online for the public. Other courts do not regularly publish their judgments, although some, in particular appellate courts, make some particularly important decisions or excerpts from decisions available on their websites. Selected decisions are also periodically published in the Official Gazette. However, the number of decisions available online remains limited. Only the Constitutional Court’s website has a search engine that allows keyword searching. A search engine for the SCC’s website is currently under construction.
  2. The Act on Free Access to Public Information allows all individuals can request a court to provide them with its decisions.566 In general, courts fulfill this duty though in some cases, delays occur especially if a request involves a large number of decisions. Parties to court proceedings can always ask courts for decisions made in their case and also have access to their case files.