America’s founders established an independent judiciary – something most of us take for granted as a piece of our history. In Kosovo, judges and court workers are making history now as they continue building up an independent, open and transparent court system in that fledgling democracy.
Two St. Louis area court administrators recently returned from a two-week stint advising court workers in Kosovo how to handle some of the day-to-day issues that arise when it comes to running a court system.
Jim Woodward, court clerk for the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, and Helen Haskins, court administrator for the St. Louis Circuit Court, were among several volunteers in the National Center for State Courts’ Rule of Law project in Kosovo. They served in the model courts program, advising their counterparts about such things as case management and an administrator’s role in the courts, as well as about how to keep the courts running during courthouse renovation.
Some of this is basic – such as posting directions, fees and the court’s mission statement inside the courthouses.
“We know a lot of these things, having worked in court administration, but we don’t think about it,” Haskins said of how these basic items can help create a more open and less scary atmosphere for the general public.
In Peja, in the western part of Kosovo, the district and municipal courts are housed in a 1960s era building that has no signage, or person, to direct people who come to court.
“Unless you’ve been there before and know where to go, you walk down the halls and knock on doors,” Woodward said.
Court staff in Peja are making the final preparations for renovation of the courthouse to begin, and Woodward participated in two lengthy meetings on issues such as how to continue operating during renovation.
In southeastern Kosovo, the courthouse in Ferizaj has been completely renovated. Inside the yellow building, “all public offices have become genuinely public, open and visible,” Woodward said. “It really sends a much more positive message.”
Court officials all over Kosovo say their No. 1 problem is that there aren’t enough judges, but Woodward and Haskins identified some factors that keep judges from focusing on their caseloads.
“In some places, judges would micromanage” their staff by taking on such tasks as overseeing timesheets, Haskins said. That’s not what judges do; that’s what the support staff is for, she said.
She also said that the judges in Kosovo are obligated to meet with the citizens who come to court. “Any time they come in, they had a right to meet with a judge,” she said.
Woodward added that courts in Kosovo have duties that have never been the responsibility of courts in the United States – executing civil judgments.
“The obligation goes so far that court staff … are supposed to go to the homes of debtors, see if they have anything [collectable] and take it,” he said. Thousands of utility cases are filed with the courts, which, again, are supposed to collect the judgments, he said. The task is made even more difficult because there is no national database of addresses, not even a phone book, Haskins said.
“The utility companies are mad at the court because the bills continue to be unpaid, and the utility customers are mad at the court for harassing them about the unpaid bills. It’s a PR nightmare,” Woodward said.
“The court is just not equipped to fulfill that obligation,” he said.
Woodward was in Kosovo from Oct. 11 until Oct. 24; Haskins was there from Sept. 20 to Oct. 3. The trip made an impression on them both.
“I realized how fortunate we are – even with budget cuts, even with everything coming down in the next several years,” Haskins said.
The NCSC project was funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The grant will expire next June.