BIRN Reveals Major Kosovo Court Weaknesses

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Kosovo’s courts are inefficient, opaque, and hampered by persistent institutional obstacles, according to a 50-page report released today following a year-long monitoring project conducted by BIRN.

Major problems noted by the monitors in a report released this week include unreasonably long delays in opening, and then concluding, cases; failures to meet the standards expected in handling trials, and some instances of suspected corruption by judges and prosecutors.

The study, conducted at four district courts and seven municipal courts from March 2008, found that the workload of judges varies widely. In the district court of Peja/Pec last June, for example, one judge heard 99 cases, whilst another heard none. Of the 513 trials monitored across the country, 59 per cent began late.

Flawed administration slows the work of the courts, according to the study. Problems included the possession of out-of-date contact details for suspects; the centralised appointment system for administrative staff and the inability, or unwillingness, of court staff to use the new computerised registration system, despite the offer of training.

In addition, the failure to produce electronic recordings of court proceedings, as required under the 2004 Criminal Procedure Code, raised concerns that some information or statements may not be included in official records.

One contributing factor may be that almost three-quarters of the monitored trials took place in judges’ offices, as opposed to court rooms, in contravention of the principle that trials should be open to the public, as far as possible. Additionally, one of the major violations of the court work is that public prosecutors have been found to attend up to three trials at the same time, when they are expected to concentrate on one trial

The judicial police unit for investigating court cases still does not exist, some five years after it was envisaged in Kosovo’s criminal justice code. The work is currently performed by investigators from the overburdened Kosovo Police Service. The Chief Prosecutor for the Ferizaj/Urosevac municipal court, Ekrem Shabani, cited the lack of a judicial police service as an important factor in the large number of unsolved crimes in his municipality, which stood at 1,400 in 2008 alone.

Even after judgements are passed, the enforcement of sentences is patchy. For example, out of the 591 criminals punishable by imprisonment in 2008 in Pristina municipal court, only 298 actually went to prison.

According to Rifat Abdullahu, the head judge of Ferizaj/Urosevac  municipal court, the system for civil sentences “is in true chaos”. In his court, out of the 6,050 cases processed in 2008, fewer than 10 per cent had their sentences imposed. Figures for the municipality of Pristina are similarly low.

Court officials suggested this was being caused by uncooperative banks, the mis-registration of debtors’ addresses and insufficient physical and human capacity to effectively deal with the collection of fines and enforcement of sanctions.

However, Artan Arifi, an official from Gjilan/Gnjilane municipal court, claimed that the statistics for civil cases appeared alarming because “a large number of unpaid fines are from Post Office debtors”, adding that the Post Office “sometimes initiates judicial proceedings for debts of €25”.

Monitors observed that public defence lawyers often did not attempt to communicate with their assigned clients outside of court. In one trial in the municipal court of Peja/Pec, the public defence lawyer had to ask the prosecutor which individual was his client.

The other main violations of legal norms highlighted in the report were the widespread use of mobile telephones by court officials during trials and the failure, in some cases, to provide suitable translation for parties and witnesses who could not speak or read Albanian.

The report found that institutional problems were at the heart of issues related to the smooth-running of trials.

After three years of delays, the re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors has finally begun. The process, which is hoped to ‘cleanse’ the judiciary of those who have abused their positions, is scheduled to last 22 months. Those officials wishing to continue working in court must submit to an evaluation of their past activities.

However, those officials who do not reapply will not be subjected to checks. Consequently, BIRN has drawn attention to the possibility that unsuitable judges and prosecutors could simply move to another role within the judiciary.

Despite the major impact the re-evaluation process may have upon Kosovo’s judiciary, as well as the persistently low number of officials, the Ministry of Justice has not held Bar Exams since January 2008. The report concludes that not only is this a violation of the ministry’s obligation to hold exams at least three times a year, but it could lead to a shortage of suitable candidates to replace those judges deemed unsuitable in reform processes.

In the meantime, judges suspected of abusing their positions have not been subjected to restrictions. Gjilan/Gnjilane district court’s head judge, Ymer Huruglica, admitted trying to influence the direction of the criminal trial of a relative, charged with the possession of heroin. Despite the opening of an investigation into this case by the Office of the Disciplinary Prosecutor in June last year, Huruglica, also the head of the Kosovo Society of Judges, continues to preside over civil and criminal cases in Gjilan/Gnjilane district.

A series of targeted recommendations has been put forward by BIRN in the hope its report will encourage the competent authorities to push for further reforms and wholeheartedly implement those previously agreed.

Fatmire Terdevci is the Project Manager of the BIRN monitoring of public services project and Tom Fuller is the Editor of the “Monitoring of Courts” report

The “Monitoring of public services” project is supported by Rockefeller Brothers Fund, European Commission, Mott Foundation and Balkan Trust for Democracy