A judge is preparing for a trial scheduled for the next day, and he needs the case file. His office is tiny, crammed with binders and documents, so he first looks on the floor behind him. He thinks he remembers the color of the file — yes, he remembers putting a yellow sticker it on it — but somehow he cannot find it. He goes into the corridor, where he can hardly walk among the piles of files. He spends some time scanning the cases, but in vain. Then he sees his assistant. “Can you please help me find the case file? You know, the 11-year-old girl’s case? I put a sticker on it, remember?”
“Oh, judge, you forgot again,”the assistant says. “I told you to keep the most urgent case files in our kitchenette!”
Although this story is fiction, it could have been a typical day in the Basic Court in Podgorica before USAID’s Rule of Law project knocked on the door of this court, the largest in Montenegro.
And the situation was not fiction for citizens coming to the court; they didn’t know where to go, whom to ask, or where to find the courtrooms. They only seemed to meet angry court staff in the corridors, and none seemed willing to help them. The judges were usually cranky, lugging huge case files into their offices because there were no proper archives. Actually, the “archives” were the corridor floors.
The Basic Court in Podgorica—receiving more than half of the country’s cases—deserved better. To begin with, USAID helped it look like a real court. Working with the court’s staff, USAID refurbished the main reception area, where citizens are now welcomed by knowledgeable staff stationed at information desks. New LCD screens display the schedule of hearings, along with courtroom numbers and assigned judges. The entire courthouse was renovated, from registry offices to the public restrooms. The building now looks more respectable, but even more important, the effort has led to increased public trust in the justice dispensed by the court.
When I met Basic Court judge and spokesperson Ibrahim Smailovic in the renovated reception area, the element he emphasized most was not immediately visible to an outsider. “Through this project,” he told me, “a lot has been done about the quality of the relationship between the court and citizens. Being better informed and being able to get things done quickly, I think citizens now have more trust in what we do here, and I hope they have more trust in the whole judicial system of Montenegro.”
Judge Smailovic would probably laugh about my fictional story at the beginning of this blog, and rightfully so, because he is aware how close it was to reality and how it illustrates the strides the Basic Court of Podgorica has made with USAID support.
Renovations to the courthouse and its archives were completed shortly before Montenegro graduated from USAID assistance in late 2013. Weeks before the Mission closed, Judge Smailovic stepped before a film crew’s cameras to speak about the strides the Basic Court had made. “Through USAID assistance, Montenegro now has a more transparent, responsive judiciary and government,” he said with pride.
USAID’s Good Governance Activity streamlined operations at the Basic Court of Podgorica and the Municipality of Cetinje as part of its efforts to develop transparent, responsive government institutions. The video below shows how USAID improved government services in the country’s largest court and made doing business easier in Montenegro’s old royal capital.