Alternative Dispute Resolution Breaks a Legal Logjam in Serbia

Snezana Stojanovic, a judge in Belgrade’s Second municipal Court, gave up a lot of authority in accepting her new job, but she is accomplishing more now than ever. Her story reflects an innovation that is quietly changing the Serbian judicial system.

The change is alternative dispute resolution, a results-oriented, time-tested approach to resolving legal disagreements that relies on a simple process: discuss problems face-to-face, seek solutions rather than assigning blame, and move on. ADR takes a variety of forms, but in Serbia it basically involves removing lawyers and judges from the process so that the would-be litigants, aided by trained mediators, can settle their differences. 

ADR delivers quantifiable results. In Serbia’s first two years of offering mediation, settlements were reached in 1,800 of 2,000 cases where it was used. In a survey of participants, all respondents – 100 percent – said they were fully or at least partially satisfied. Some 93 percent said that mediation increased their trust in the legal system. ADR is also fast. In Serbia, contract disputes that go to litigation typically require 40 separate proceedings and can take years to resolve. But ADR cases are usually settled in a single session. And while protracted litigation can easily wind up costing €150,000, a typical mediated dispute costs just €1,800. 

IFC is helping four countries in Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia and Serbia – establish ADR systems, advising their government on the legal framework for ADR, assisting with pilot projects such as the one in Belgrade’s Second Municipal Court, and supporting efforts to train mediators. Although ADR is not limited to commercial cases (in Serbia, 60 percent of cases that go to ADR involve non-commercial matters), it has clear implications for economic development. 

First and foremost, judicial reform is a prerequisite for admission to the European Union. Also, the backlog of cases awaiting trial has grown to 500,000 in Serbia and is increasing 10 percent a year. And finally, ADR frees up capital that otherwise could be frozen for years during litigation; the first 1,800 Serbian ADR cases settled led to the release of €33.2 million. 

Does Judge Stojanovic miss having the final say? Not at all. Within her courtroom, she explains, all the litigants – even the winners – eventually come to resent the control she wields. “But in mediation, both parties end up satisfied,” she smiles. “I like that much more.”