Note: The original Article by Tomislav Šunjka was published as part of the International Bar Association (IBA) Anti-Corruption Committee Newsletter, which can be found here.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts on Serbia’s legal landscape
The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought multiple impacts on legal and judicial systems in several countries, some of which have affected transparency and could cause corruption risks, including in procurement processes. Serbia is no exception.
On 17 March 2020, the Serbian Ministry of Justice issued a Recommendation on the status of courts and public prosecutors offices during the state of emergency, which was enacted on 15 March 2020. This Recommendation was implemented by regulations of the High Judicial Council as well as the courts themselves via the instructions.
In accordance with these regulations, courts operate with minimal capacity, including staff limited to those needed to perform the most essential activities. Most judges are working from home. All courts must write a list of on-duty judges who will handle urgent matters if they arise and only these judges can work from the court premises.
Courts have also imposed restrictions regarding the number of parties that can be present on court premises at any one time. In certain courts, the restriction applies to the total number of parties while in others, it is based on the number of reception desks in the court. They all receive briefs via email, and only accept in-person submissions in urgent matters for cases which cannot be delayed. However, courts can be contacted, and several of them have opened additional telephone lines.
All court hearings are postponed for the duration of the state of emergency, with the exception of court cases that cannot be delayed. These are:
- cases in which the court must decide on interim measures (preliminary injunctions, freezing orders);
- cases in which the court must decide on measures of protection against domestic violence;
- cases in which the court must decide on retention in a health institution which performs activities in the area of neuropsychiatry; or
- enforcement proceedings based on an enforceable document regarding family relations.
In accordance with the provisions of this decree declaring the state of emergency, deadlines for the initiation of court proceeding are suspended during the state of emergency. This includes the deadlines for:
- filing a lawsuit in the litigation proceedings;
- submitting a proposal for the initiation of non-litigation proceedings;
- submitting a proposal for the initiation of enforcement proceedings; and
- submitting a constitutional appeal to the Constitutional Court.
In addition, on 18 March 2020, the Chamber of Public Enforcement officers issued Instructions on the regime of work of public enforcement officers during the state of emergency. In accordance with these regulations, courts can only issue orders in proceedings related to family law. In addition, public enforcement officers can only carry enforcement acts in strictly limited cases.
Procurement exempt from the law
In compliance with the provisions of the Public Procurement Law to be applied in times of crisis such as the current one, public procurement processes are exempt from regular legal requirements for the purpose of ensuring basic living conditions and protecting public health.
These provisions provide that procurement plan, notice, manner of proving mandatory and additional requirements for participation in public procurement procedure, time limits for bid submissions and time limits for decision-making by the Republic Commission for the Protection of Rights in Public Procurement Procedures are not applied in the public procurement procedure during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the moment information on the budget allocated and disbursed for public procurement is unknown.
Donations of goods and services by private entities or individuals are exempt of rules for the duration of the state of emergency. Public records of donations, donors and receivers of donations do not exist. Clear criteria about the disposal of donations do not exist, and the management of such donations, generally speaking, is opaque.
According to rules in force during a state of emergency, all deadlines in anti-corruption administrative proceedings are suspended.
A government decree issued on 28 March 2020 provided that only official information from the government is a valid source of information and that only the government has the right to inform society. But under the pressure from free media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations, the government annulled that decree on 3 April 2020.