Strengthening the Courts of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Article excerpt

The recent independence of Kosovo in the Balkans may remind readers of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the tragic four-year war (1992-1995) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) started by Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Bosnian Croats ( Roman Catholics). The Accords established two entities in BiH: Republika Srpska (mainly Serbs) and Federation BiH (mainly Bosniaks and Croats), each with its own governmental structures. The national government has limited powers within a quasi-federal system.

The four-year hiatus in judicial activity during the war resulted in huge case backlogs, some of which remain to this day, some 13 years later. In the early 2000s, the internationally-sponsored Independent Judicial Commission required the more than 1,500 judges to submit their resignations and re-apply. The process cleansed the system of corrupt or unqualified judges, with some 30 percent of judges failing to win reappointment.

During 2003-2004, the Office of High Representative (OHR), which has ultimate authority to implement the Dayton Accords, imposed new laws governing the courts; new codes of civil and criminal procedure; and a new High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) to govern the judiciary. The judicial process in criminal cases was changed from a mixed inquisitorial/accusatory system to a more adversarial system. A judicial training center was established in each of the two entities. The HJPC, composed of an equal number of representative judges and prosecutors, appoints judges and prosecutors (for life), and is responsible for the disciplinary process and administration of the courts. The Ministries of Justice (MoJ) of the two entities have some oversight powers, some of which overlap those of the HJPC.

A number of needs for strengthening the courts and improving the administration of justice were identified. Among them: management training for court presidents and court administrators; case processing time standards; legal aid for indigent criminal defendants; statistical reports on the work of the courts; performance standards for judges; strengthening the budgetary process and financial management; automation; customer service; records management; human resources management; public information programs; case backlog reduction; upgrading court buildings; and recording of court hearings and trials.

Providing assistance

In 2004 USAID funded a five-year technical assistance contract with East West Management Institute to strengthen the MoJ, the HJPC, and the courts through a Judicial sector Development Project (JSDP). (The author heads the component working to strengthen the courts). This is done through a Model Courts Initiative in which a package of 11 court administration improvements are introduced into selected courts, with the expectation that other courts will want to emulate them. To date the Initiative has directly reached 17 of 64 courts in the country, including courts in both entities and at the trial and appellate levels.

The package of court administration improvements includes management training of the court leadership and key staff; training judges in efficient processing of civil and criminal cases; public information programs; developing case backlog reduction plans; renovation of court building entrances and public and registry areas; audio recording equipment; and standards for appointment of counsel to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases. Several specific reforms have already reached all courts through instructions by the HJPC, e.g., a common case-numbering system (a single case retains the same number until final judgment; thus, no case is counted twice because of multiple numbers); open filing cabinets with vertical instead of horizontal filing of case files for greater efficiency; and file locator cards.

During the final year of the Project, which began in April 2008, the HJPC and JSDP jointly are initiating a standards-based approach to model courts. …