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Rewarding high-performing courts: an ongoing success in Serbia

Elaine R.E. Panter's picture


In September 2016, the Supreme Court of Cassation in Serbia launched the Courts Rewards Program, an innovative plan aimed at increasing the efficiency of the courts, promoting collective leadership and reducing the case backlog that is stalemating the judiciary. The initiative was unprecedented and no one knew how effective it would be.

The project was based on some basic lessons drawn from performance-based accountability systems in other non-judicial sectors, which found that non-financial rewards can be more effective than cash in incentivizing high performance. As described in last year’s blog, the project recognized the three best performing courts at the end of the year by hosting a gala dinner covered by the Serbian press. The winning courts were also given a small financial award (5,000, 3,000 and 2000 euros) but this could only be used for ICT equipment, books, legal journals and other periodicals, or other items for the court (small furniture, paint, plants, repairs etc..).

Because this type of program had never been implemented in the country nor in the region, the outcomes were unclear. However, much to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court of Cassation and the World Bank Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Justice Sector Support in Serbia - who partnered in developing the initiative - the project yielded positive results.  Not only was it well received within the judiciary as a tool to promote positive competition, but data also showed that court backlogs in Serbia reduced by more than 20% during the program, indicating the positive impact this initiative had on court performance.

In particular, in 2016, courts in Serbia resolved 2.9 million cases - including 35,130 backlogged cases that were older than two years. That was 21,109 more cases more than in 2015.  Many thousands of citizens and businesses had their disputes adjudicated in the winning courts. 

The program encouraged competition between courts and the awards bestowed a degree of prestige on those that performed well. Receiving an award at the ceremony, in the presence of almost all Court Presidents (as well as being mentioned in the media) was a motivating factor for judges to improve performance.

“One of the winners said he had been in the system for 40 years and this was the first time he received any recognition,” said Srdjan Svircev, the co-TTL of the project.
Interestingly, the winning judges came from a mix of large courts in big cities and small courts in rural towns, in both the north and south of the country. These courts are led by Court Presidents of mixed genders and varying ages. 

This suggests that, at least in Serbia, improvement of court performance is not dependent on location, size or access to resources. According to the Serbia Judicial Functional Review 2014, the most likely determinant of a higher-performing court was the managerial skills of the court president and his/her core team of senior administrators. The Courts Reward Program capitalizes on this and further promotes court management as one of the key factors for better performance.

Today, the Rewards Program has been formally endorsed and included in the Supreme Court of Cassation’s Court Book of Rules putting Serbia at the forefront of innovation among European judiciaries in incentivizing court performance. A second round of awards was given in 2017 and that also seems to have had some positive results, since in the first half of 2017 courts in Serbia resolved little more than a million cases out of which almost 15.000 backlog cases.

2018 will be the third year of project implementation and we will see how effective the project will be in the coming years. Nonetheless, one reflection can already be made: we are often told that the only goal of the homo economicus is to maximize utility as a consumer and profit as a producer. This initiative points more toward a behavioral economics approach whereby individuals make economic decision based on a broader set of psychological, cognitive, emotional, cultural and social factors. Management skills and the very human desire to receive recognition for one’s work in this case seem to have motivated individuals more than financial gain. After all, who wouldn’t like to dress up and receive an award for a lifelong dedication to his/her career at an elegant gala dinner!

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