An Effective Remedy before the Courts

Many Serb returnees in Croatia are elderly villagers who are unable to seek enforcement of their rights before the courts because they are often poorly educated and lack the resources to obtain professional assistance from lawyers.

Faced with the continued unauthorized use of Serb agricultural land in the Benkovac area, returnees are refraining from initiating legal proceedings against the occupants, partly because they cannot afford lawyers to assist them.140 A returnee to his family house in Knin faced a similar problem:

When, in September 2004, the temporary occupant was leaving my house, a dozen people were helping him loading furniture—my furniture—onto a truck. I was standing there and watching how my things go. The police were there, but they asked me, “Are you sure these are your things?’’ I have not sued anybody, because I don’t have money for a lawyer.141

The Croatian government has drafted a law on legal aid, which is expected to be adopted by the end of 2006. Under the draft, any person in need of free legal aid is required to turn to a county office to get an authorization that the person is entitled to legal aid.142 The expense of traveling to a county office and a complicated application procedure may discourage those in need of legal aid from requesting it.143

The draft law also provides that owners of property and immediate family members of the owners are not entitled to such aid.144 As a result, many returnees may not qualify for free legal aid. Although most Serb returnees depend upon basic agricultural work or small pensions to survive, they usually own a house. The draft law does envisage free legal aid to persons not fulfilling the property requirements if “the reasons of justice so demand.”145 It is unclear, however, whether this general provision will be applied in such a way as to encompass returnees.

140 See above, “Agricultural Land.”

141 Human Rights Watch interview with D.M., Knin, May 14, 2006.

142 Draft Law on Free Legal Aid, final version, June 21, 2005, articles 11 and 12 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

143 Human Rights Watch interview with Duško Cvjetković, lawyer in the Knin office of the Serb Democratic Forum, May 10, 2006.

144 Draft Law on Free Legal Aid, final version, June 21, 2005, article 21 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

145 Ibid., article 6.