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Statute of Limitations and Court-Appointed Attorneys: Calls for New Legal Solutions

The results of CIN's research on statute of limitations in criminal proceedings and court-appointed attorneys in BiH were presented at the Roundtable on 'Public Trust and Judicial Efficiency".
Foto: Dženat Dreković (CIN)

The Roundtable on Public Trust and Judicial Efficiency convened members of the judiciary: reps of the BiH High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC), courts, prosecutors, as well as lawyers and ministry officials. The discussions centered on topics that had been the subject of extensive research by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN), specifically the efficacy of measures to prevent and enhance the statute of limitations, the assignment of court-appointed attorneys in criminal proceedings, and the accountability mechanisms within the judiciary. These discussions underscored the vital role of these principles in bolstering anti-corruption initiatives across the nation.

The research findings revealed that statute of limitations in criminal cases predominantly arise as a result of the accused and convicted not being accessible to justice, but also due to abuse of procedural rights, negligence, or carelessness in the work of individual judicial office holders. Annually, between 230 and 340 criminal cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina become time-barred in either criminal proceedings or judgment enforcement stages. Consequently, in such cases, it remains unknown whether the accused were truly guilty or whether the convicted have served their sentence.

However, results of the disciplinary proceedings have shown that only a small number of statute of limitations cases were attributable to judges. In such cases, they were receiving warnings or salary reductions, while in most statute of limitations cases, a subjective responsibility has never been established.

„According to the research, since 2017, over 1,700 cases have reached the statute of limitations, yet only judges from 27 cases have faced disciplinary action for these infractions“, Bičakčić reported.

Statute Of Limitations Archives Justice In BiH
In courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, between 230 and 340 criminal cases become time-barred each year due to the expiration of the legally set deadline for the completion of court proceedings and enforcement of the verdict. In these instances, it is unclear whether the accused are truly guilty or whether the convicted have served their sentence.
Convicts Freed, Judges Rebuked
From 2018 to 2024, eighteen judges have been penalized due to negligence in their work, which led to the statute of limitations on the enforcement of judgments and the conduct of criminal proceedings in a total of 27 cases. They received warnings and fines of around BAM 20,000.

Rusmir Šabeta, the Head of the BiH HJPC Judicial Analysis and Reporting Department, emphasized the significance and sensitivity of this matter, noting that the HJPC has been diligently monitoring it since its inception to forestall any irregularities in the work of prosecutors’s offices and courts.

Judge Lejla Džaferbegović from the Municipal Court in Sarajevo pointed out that the issue does not solely rest with judges and prosecutors, but also with legislators who, through amendments to statutes concerning the statute of limitations, inadvertently benefit individuals committing criminal acts. She emphasized that what stands out as particularly problematic is the diminishing effectiveness and purpose of criminal sanctions and prosecution.

Participants in the second panel discussed the institute of court-appointed attorneys in the country. According to CIN’s research, which aggregated data from courts nationwide from 2005 to the end of 2022, an average of around BAM 11 million is allocated annually for these attorneys.

The research highlighted several shortcomings, including the lack of transparency in the attorney assignment system and the unequal representation of attorneys in the selection process. Over the years, three attorneys have consistently ranked among the top ten highest paid, with one of them holding the top spot for seventeen years.

Millionaires Among Court-Appointed Attorneys
Over the course of six years, courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina have paid out BAM 58.8 million for compensations to court-appointed attorneys. Nearly BAM 10 million were paid to ten attorneys, although more than 1,440 were engaged in ex officio defenses.

There is still a practice where judges handling cases allow suspects in criminal proceedings to choose their court-appointed attorneys. In this process, attorneys promote themselves to individuals who are repeat offenders, and judges, prosecutors, police officers, and prison guards are also all involved“, said Bičakčić citing the findings of the research.

In Republika Srpska, this issue was partially addressed through the amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code in 2021. The President of the Bar Association of East Sarajevo, Aleksandar Majkalović, stated that the accused no longer retains the right to select a court-appointed attorney. Instead, the president of the court now designates an attorney from a list of candidates who have expressed their willingness and fulfill the necessary criteria to be included in the roster of court-appointed attorneys. Nevertheless, it was underscored that this system requires further enhancement to ensure a more transparent selection process for attorneys.

Participants reached the conclusion that legislative changes are necessary in both the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and at the state level. The Bar Association of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina proposed these changes to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC), which forwarded the proposal to the relevant ministries as early as 2021, but no action has been taken on this matter yet.

The round table was organized by CIN as part of a project funded by MATRA, the fund of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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