“Guidelines for handling compensation claims in criminal proceedings” – a step towards improving the rights of victims
On 11 October 2019, during the annual judicial conference in Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia’s Supreme Court of Cassation presented its “Guidelines for improving court practice in handling compensation claims made by victims of serious crimes during criminal proceedings” (“Guidelines”). The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) views the “Guidelines” as a step forward in improving the situation of victims in Serbia, and calls on the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor (OWCP) to take a more active part in gathering the evidence needed for the adjudication of compensation claims, and for the courts to adjudicate compensation claims in the course of criminal proceedings whenever possible.
According to the Criminal Procedure Code, victims of crime are entitled to make a compensation claim before the completion of criminal proceedings. Thus far, however, no war crime victim has had his or her compensation claim adjudicated during criminal proceedings, because, as explained by the courts, such an act would delay criminal proceedings. The courts have invariably instructed victims to seek compensation through civil action following the completion of criminal proceedings. Thus, instead of being an exception, referring victims to civil proceedings to pursue compensation has become a rule, since the courts in practice stick to the stance that compensation claims cannot be decided upon in criminal proceedings but in civil proceedings exclusively. As a result of such a stance, victims are exposed to secondary victimisation, because after often lengthy and emotionally gruelling criminal proceedings, they are forced to engage in further lengthy and very costly proceedings to be able to realise their right to compensation. That is why the majority of victims are reluctant to go through further court proceedings and as a result renounce their right to compensation.
The “Guidelines” of the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC) offer concrete instructions to both public prosecutors and judges on how to handle compensation claims in the most economical and effective way. The HLC believes that by issuing the “Guidelines” the SCC has made a step forward in improving the rights of crime victims, as this document provides direct guidance to prosecutors’ offices and courts in Serbia on the concrete steps they need to take to enable victims to realise their right to compensation immediately in the course of criminal proceedings.
That being so, the HLC urges the OWCP to engage more actively in gathering evidence necessary for adjudicating compensation claims, so that victims can realise their right to compensation in the course of criminal proceedings. In view of the fact that the Criminal Procedure Code, which entered into force in 2013, changed the concept of criminal proceedings significantly and gave public prosecutors a role in gathering evidence regarding compensation claims, the role of the OWCP in the effective exercise of the right to compensation seems essential.
Furthermore, the HLC calls on the courts to translate the “Guidelines” into practice, and in each case where evidence suggests that the compensation claim is well-founded, to decide upon it right away in the course of the criminal proceedings, and thus save victims from exhausting themselves further by pursuing compensation through civil proceedings.