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What happens if you have a legal problem but you can’t afford a lawyer?
In Serbia, we are one step closer to answering that very question.
The average salary in the country is around €365/month, but court and lawyer fees often climb to many times more than this. As a result, most people cannot afford justice.
Recent World Bank research on access to justice in Serbia highlights how affordability is the single biggest barrier to pursuing a claim. This is especially so in cases of abuse of power (such as labor cases involving unpaid wages), minor disputes (such as non-payment for supply of goods) and violations of human rights. Left with very few options, people feel helpless, disempowered, and they simply do nothing, bearing theconsequences this brings for their lives and businesses.
In response, the Bank’s justice reform team in ECA has teamed up with YUCOM, a Serbian human rights NGO, to chip away at this problem and to increase legal literacy for those who can’t afford a lawyer.
Together, we’ve developed a guide to help ordinary citizens and businesses navigate the court system in Serbia. This is a simple, colorful, lay document that introduces readers to the basic procedural steps, costs, and deadlines associated with bringing a case to court. It also provides basic information about justice institutions and provides tips on what to expect at the courthouse.
Included in this guide are the simple answers to questions like:
- What documents should I bring to court?
- What happens in a hearing room?
- What represents evidence?
- What happens if I don’t show up?
- What should I wear to court?
- What are the possible outcomes of a judgment if I am the plaintiff (I am bringing the claim) or the defendant (I am being sued)?
NGOs and legal aid providers can expand their reach by sharing the guide when they want to assist a client but cannot (either due to a lack of resources of a lack of a mandate). It can also be handy for law students and lawyers representing their first clients. The guide also presents a tool for the court.
According to Serbian law, judges are obliged to offer assistance to un-represented litigants to ensure equality. Court staff can now also recommend the guide to citizens making inquiries.
We offer this guide with some caution: while a useful tool, it’s not a definitive solution. It doesn’t offer legal advice and it can’t substitute for an experienced and dedicated lawyer.
Moreover, it doesn’t alleviate the need to reform the system of legal aid in Serbia to better align with EU countries. Despite over a decade of debate - and many proposed reforms - the country still lacks a solid foundation for the service delivery of legal aid to those who are unable to afford access to the court system.
But even as a stop gap, the guide can go some way toward addressing the need in Serbia for more access to basic legal information and help citizens—especially the poor—feel a little more empowered. The guide is a small step toward giving people in Serbia a stronger voice in court.
With this guide, Serbia moves closer to attaining that important goal of ensuring access to justice for all - which is guaranteed not only under the Serbian Constitution, but also within the regional systems of human rights protection. It also aligns with the EU accession agenda, as well as Serbia’s Action Plan for accession, which puts access to justice high on the list of priorities.
The guide is available in hard and soft copy, in Serbian, English and Serbia’s other minority languages - including Albanian, Bulgarian, Slovak and Romanian. It will also be available on court websites, as well as the websites of government ministries and NGOs.
The next step for the World Bank and YUCOM is a nationwide promotional campaign that is set to start next month.
As copies of the guide came off the printing press, an interesting thing happened. One of the workers at the printing shop called us and requested to deliver one less copy; he wanted to take one copy home and share it with his family, who were having some legal problems! An insight into the future for the guide?
We hope so.