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Kosovo: Overloaded Courts Grind to a Halt

With too few judges and too many cases to process, Kosovars have to wait years, or even decades, for court rulings.
By Mevlyde Salihu

Valdet Gashi has been dealing with the Municipal Court of Pristina for almost two decades. An English teacher in his forties, his life has been partly on hold since 1985, when his father died and left him his house.


“My family’s life is directly affected by a decision of the court,” he said. “The moment my father died, my uncle demanded half of the property. After 18 years, he is still using two rooms of our house.


“In spite all the documentation that proves my case, I cannot get the courts to decide whether he should leave the house and conclude he has no right to it.”


This apparently never-ending case is far from unusual in Kosovo, where thousands of people face long delays in processing simple legal transactions.


Five years after an international-led administration was set up in Kosovo, the judicial system, and especially the municipal courts, are almost grinding to a halt, unable to deal with the load of cases that has been filed.


The courts in Kosovo have been faltering for some time. The system was first disrupted when the government of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia scrapped Kosovo’s autonomy and forced out Albanian judges. The latter were replaced by Milosevic appointees who never enjoyed the trust of the majority ethnic Albanian community.


More disruption followed the 1999 withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, when Albanians replaced Serb judges and court staff who fled with their army and police.


The Kosovo judicial system comprises a supreme court, five district courts and 24 municipal courts, with the latter particularly under strain due to a series of problems according to a May 2004 report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, mission in Kosovo.


These problems include having a relatively small number of judges to draw on, difficulties in getting witnesses and defendants to turn up for court sessions and dubious judgments, the report said.


The situation is worst in urban centres, such as Pristina and Gjilan, southeast of the capital, where court presidents say their main problem is not having enough judges and limited space.


Gjilan’s court president, Shefqet Xhelili, says people are impatient with continual delays in the completion of cases, resulting in “[us] losing the trust we gained after the [1999] war”.


Xhelili says judges are not to blame, “They’re overloaded with cases. The number has grown by 50 per cent since the war, while there are fewer judges.”


Pristina court president Nuhi Uka takes the same view, “All the judges face an extraordinary high number of cases, which makes their work difficult.”


The situation is better in small municipalities, where the ratio of judges to inhabitants is not so skewed as in the cities, which have seen large influxes of people in recent years. In 2002 and 2003, the courts of Malisheva and Lipjan, for example, completed all the cases allocated to them.


Referring to the pressure faced by judges in the towns, Uka said it was their “ desire to work in the judiciary that has kept some going”, adding that this was surprising “considering how they are treated, the salaries they get and the conditions they work in”.


Certainly, the salaries that Kosovo judges draw are very low by European standards. Most earn about 420 euro a month, which is not enough to support a family.


But ordinary people who’ve had direct experience of the courts complain that many judges simply aren’t up to the job, being either corrupt or lacking qualifications and experience.


Xhavit Krasniqi, a lawyer from Pristina who worked as a judge for 16 years, points out that the current situation in the courts in Kosovo violates the international convention on human rights, which says every legal process must be effective, quick and fair. “This article is violated in every single case,” he said


Many lawyers and judges believe that people are losing faith in the judicial system, but are pinning their hopes on new two criminal codes - introduced in April - that bring the penal system in Kosovo closer into line with European standards.


“With these two laws, we have become legally equal with the world’s most advanced systems, when it comes to the criminal law,” said Krasniqi.


However, legal experts accept that there will have to be a commensurate improvement in the quality of court staff and their conditions of work before real improvements are seen.


Mevlyde Salihu is attending an IWPR journalism training course supported by the OSCE.