Published on Eurasian Perspectives

When less is more: How Serbia could deliver better justice with fewer judges

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When less is more: How Serbia could deliver better justice with fewer judges
In courts across Europe, there is a common refrain: “we need more judges!” Your court has a backlog? Many hands will make light work. Your courts are out of touch? Let’s bring in some new blood.
Serbia, however, has the opposite problem. Serbia has too many judges. And the implications for system performance, service delivery, and justice reform are significant.
How many is too many? 
The Serbian judiciary receives roughly the same number of cases per capita as EU Member States but has double the number of judges to service that level of demand. On average, a Serbian judge receives less than half the incoming caseload of his/her counterpart judges across the EU, and fewer than most counterparts among the new European Union members and neighboring countries with similar legal systems.
In Croatia and Slovenia, for example, caseloads per judge are nearly double those in Serbia. In addition to around 3,000 judges, Serbia has a comparatively high ratio of staff-to-judges, as well as a large scaffolding of volunteers, interns, contractors and lay judges working in courts. In all, the demand pressures facing Serbian judges are milder than those facing judges elsewhere in Europe.
Moreover, demand is falling. Through a combination of recession pressures and reforms that have shifted court functions to other players, incoming caseloads in Serbia fell by over one-third from 2010 to 2013.  But resources and practices are yet to adapt. 
Why so many judges? 
  • History – numbers have been added incrementally from figures developed in socialist times, when the role of the state, judiciary and labor market were all rather different from today.
  • Politics – naturally, powerful players may wish to appoint judges to ensure friendly faces on the bench.
  • Inter-generational dynamics – for years, the younger generation of protégés working in courts have been assured by their patrons that their ‘time will come’. And with few alternative career paths in court management, they wait in hope.
  • Weak governance – there is no clear methodology for how (or how many) judges should be appointed. No longer term planning has been undertaken to identify future needs and adjust resources to suit.
So… the numbers grow.
What are the implications? 
First, the wage bill has blown out. Judges are expensive, after all. With salaries nearly 2.5 times the average (not including pensions, support staff, security and more), the decision to appoint a judge is a sizeable investment. Judges are also permanent investments – important Constitutional protections make it difficult – and potentially politically toxic – to remove judges (and given the balance age structure, many judges will draw salaries for decades to come.)

The resource mix is therefore distorted. Salary expenditure crowds out much-needed training, ICT, and infrastructure investments that people working in the system crave and which could modernize the judiciary in line with EU expectations. Judges and staff receive little ongoing training as there is no money left for curricula, trainers, workshops, or books. They sit in cramped chambers, as there aren’t enough courtrooms to support them, and courthouses have undergone little maintenance in decades. Meanwhile, efforts to automate systems or streamline processes rely on a trickle of ad-hoc donor funding.
Second (and related), productivity, morale, and engagement are low. Despite large numbers, Serbian judges and staff judiciary report feeling busy and overburdened. The reasons lie not in the number of personnel but in systemic problems in the way the judiciary operates that undermine performance and inhibit service delivery. These problems are compounded by the absence of systems for the evaluation, promotion, and discipline of judges and court staff alike.

What are possible solutions?

There are lessons on what not to do. It is tempting for governments to intervene and terminate judicial appointments. But such efforts are often doomed to fail. In 2009, for example, Serbia instructed all judges to re-apply for their jobs and over 600 lost theirs. Unsurprisingly, the process was deemed unconstitutional and controversy paralyzed the system for years. Ultimately, judges returned to their jobs more disgruntled than before, and system productivity has since fallen. Similar attempts elsewhere in Europe have been disruptive and produced limited results.
Yet, it is possible for Serbia to deliver better justice with fewer judges. The recent Serbia Judicial Functional Review documents these and other challenges facing the Serbian judiciary. Following a combination of analytic work and policy dialogue with institutional stakeholders, the Functional Review Team recommends that the judiciary:
  • Develop a transparent methdology for determining personnel needs. Decline to fill vacant judicial and staff posts pending that methodology, then slowly reduce numbers by attrition until the target is met.
  • Gradually adjust the resource mix in favor capital investment and innovation, and standardize resource norms (caseloads-per-judge, staff-to-judge ratios etc) to maximize allocative efficiency.
  • Create attractive career paths for mid-level court administrators and managers, whose contribution is essential to modernization.
  • Design a comprehensive continuing training program that prepares judges for EU Accession.
  • Strengthen nascent systems for the evaluation, promotion and discipline of judges.
 Do you have additional suggestions? Share with us your experiences – from other countries or other sectors – to inform the ongoing dialogue.


Georgia Harley

Senior Strategy Officer, International Development Association (IDA)

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