Judges between two fires - the media and politicians
INTERVIEW: VIDA PETROVIĆ ŠKERO, member of the Complaints Commission of the Press Council and the Center for Judicial Research
Such political and legal conditions are needed that citizens can expect judges to convict everyone, even those who are representatives of other branches of government and any powerful person.
She was a judge all her working life, and then the president of the District Court in Belgrade and the Supreme Court of Serbia. Vida Petrović Škero is now a member of the Complaints Commission of the Press Council and the Center for Judicial Research (Cepris). For “Politika”, she talks about the situation in the judiciary and the cooperation of the media with courts and prosecutor’s offices.
How do you see today’s judiciary? How much has changed since you retired?
Bearing in mind that I have worked in the judiciary all my life, I can see how much that has changed. Immediately after the reform in 2001, the judiciary was in chaos, but it also welcomed the changes with great enthusiasm, with the feeling that they were getting better, but that was not the case. The cut was made in a very bad way, and what is left is to transfer it to the courts and judges to solve the problems that the state needs to solve. Thousands of banking disputes, look at the miracles, are back in the courts and we have reached the stage of having a thousand cases per judge. For citizens, that means receiving an invitation to hearings twice a year.
We have had very long periods that neither judges nor court presidents were elected on time. We now have accelerated elections and we are again in a situation where other branches of government are completely creating the judiciary, regardless of whether there will be constitutional changes or not.
Do we have good judges and what are the biggest difficulties they face today?
The subject of the parliamentary discussion included every judge who had any position when it comes to the reputation of the judiciary and the situation in the judiciary. This is especially bad for judges, who are starting to lose their status and do not want to say anything. We are in a situation to be judged at press conferences, where it is said who is guilty and who is not, so citizens have one complete perception of a dependent judiciary, where neither judges nor prosecutors decide. As a result, judges are increasingly completing cases rather than disputes. They try to make a figure without going into the essence.
The difficulty for the work of the courts is the large number of laws that are passed and changed, which means that even a judge can no longer decide which law to apply at which time. They are often in conflict with each other, and both should be applied.
You have always pointed out the uneven workload of judges in courts of the same rank and the unequal access to justice for citizens. Has progress been made in that?
At one point, it seemed that we had made some changes that could have led to an even workload of judges. The High Court in Belgrade has been given a number of specific competencies related to cases throughout Serbia. Belgrade courts are overwhelmed, and all this is not accompanied by the number of judges who can resolve these cases, so citizens living in Belgrade cannot expect a quick court decision, while judges in smaller cities can resolve the case faster but do not want to rush. Today, you can find someone at the counters of Belgrade courts who brings several hundred or even thousands of submissions in one day. The state must ensure an equal workload of the courts.
How do you view the proposed changes to the Constitution in the field of justice? Would the new composition of the HJC and the HJC contribute to judges and prosecutors being independent and autonomous?
I do not think that there will be any major changes even if the proposed changes to the Constitution are adopted. Laws will have to be passed, and the deadline for their adoption on the basis of changes to the Constitution is one year. It is not possible to create such a framework for a judicial system that is too idealized, and leave all the more concrete solutions for the laws. We are a country that has constant turbulence, and when you have a constitutional change that does not say what the competencies of the High Judicial Council (HJC) and the High Prosecutorial Council (HJC) are, we are again waiting for it to be regulated more precisely by law. In addition, in order to have changes, people need to know what the changes are and expect something from them. Even judges and prosecutors today do not know what exactly is written in these changes to the Constitution. We received a leaflet in mailboxes, and the text of the future Constitution was not delivered to citizens who do not know what is written there. All key issues will be resolved by law, so the normative framework will not end with changes to the Constitution. There is no legal security, and we are only in trouble when we talk about political security. I will remind you of the words of one MP who said that judges must “shake their pants” when they enter the assembly. The branches of government are equal, and the judiciary is independent. No one should “shake their pants”, but everyone should respect the institutions, regardless of which branch of government they belong to. It is necessary to provide political and legal conditions that should create such a perception among citizens that judges are independent and can convict everyone, including those who are representatives of other branches of government and any powerful person – political, economic, and criminal.