Croatia: Witness support offices help to deliver justice

Croatia: Witness support offices help to deliver justice
In just three years, the seven witness support offices have provided support and counselling to 7,500 witnesses. (Photo: UNDP Croatia)

By Sunčica Pleština

Vukovar, Croatia “As an employee of a retail chain, to my greatest regret, I was the witness of an armed robbery. It was an extremely traumatic experience that forced me to change my job,” writes M. K., who requested anonymity in her letter to the President of the Vukovar Court. “Four years after the event, I received a summons to testify against the suspected perpetrator, and my agony started again. For days I could not sleep ... fearful of meeting the suspect and of his revenge. I was reliving the fear and stress of that day.”

Fortunately, along with her summons, M.K. received contact information for the Office for Witness and Victim Support attached to the Vukovar County Court. The day before her testimony she visited the office. Branka Lučić, the office head, and her assistant Daniela Čukelj welcomed M.K. and explained the court process and what to expect, even showing her on a diagram where she would sit. When she went to court to give gave evidence, M.K. was joined by the office staff.

Highlights

  • Public opinion surveys show 40 percent of Croatian citizens believe that the penal system fails to address the needs of crime victims. A significant share who say they have been victims of a crime admit that they have never reported the offence to the police.
  • In just three years, seven witness support offices provided counselling to 7,500 witnesses, thanks to UNDP’s help.
  • Croatia’s Ministry of Justice has pledged to take over funding for three new offices to be opened in 2012.

“On the day of testimony, a day which I feared for years, Branka was there to support me. With her gentle voice and light conversation she diverted my attention away from the process. It worked on me better than any medication. Fear was replaced with peace, security and a sense of awareness that I was doing the right thing. Afterwards I was completely calm; I went to work and felt wonderful, like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

Support offices like the one in Vukovar were created by UNDP, working together with the Croatian Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court. In just three years, the seven witness support offices in operation – four set up in 2008 and another three created in 2011 – have already provided support and counselling to 7,500 witnesses, and the number is rising steadily as the availability of this assistance becomes more widely known.

Originally intended to provide protection to the victims of war crimes committed during the 1991-95 war that accompanied the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the offices soon expanded to address the needs of any victim who otherwise might be too fearful or traumatized to testify. Assistance has been provided in cases of domestic violence, assault, robbery, rape, murder, corruption and organized crime in addition to war crimes. The offices provide services free of charge, and witnesses enjoy full confidentiality.

When the first four witness support offices were created in 2008, UNDP hired the office staff (generally psychologists or social workers), provided them with specialized training, and secured and refurbished offices and waiting rooms. The private waiting rooms serve a vital function, as they give witnesses a secure refuge where there is no risk of an encounter with their assailants in the courthouse corridors. The offices also enlisted the help of a network of trained volunteers, many of them law students; this now numbers over 200.

UNDP and the Government then launched a nationwide public awareness campaign informing citizens that the victims of crimes have rights that are protected and where they should turn for help. A dedicated website was also created at www.mprh.hr/mphr-en with practical information about trial proceedings. Finally, starting in November 2008, a leaflet detailing the services of witness support offices and contact information was attached to every court subpoena. These efforts prompted an increase in the number of visitors to the support offices, and this in turn improved the response rate for witnesses in court cases.

After a first successful year, the Ministry of Justice and court administration undertook to cover the costs of the support offices, ensuring their sustainability. A second wave of Witness and Victim Support Offices was created by UNDP and by early 2011 every major Croatian city had one. All seven of the offices were set up on a budget of under $1.1 million, with funding from UNDP, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; the Ministry of Justice has pledged to take over funding for the three new offices in 2012.

Public opinion surveys show 40 percent of Croatian citizens believe that the penal system fails to address the needs of crime victims. A significant share who say they have been victims of a crime admit that they have never reported the offence to the police.

When UNDP first raised the idea of witness support offices, Croatian judges were sceptical, fearing interference in their own work. Now, however, they are among the system’s biggest advocates. They cite a reduction in the number of proceedings that are stalled because witnesses fail to appear in court; an increase in the number of particularly vulnerable victims who decide to report crimes and give evidence; and a rising number of victims and witnesses who are willing to testify.

The Croatian model of witness support offices has been recognized internationally as a success story and a model for other countries. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe praised the work of UNDP in a 2011 resolution, calling the programme “a cornerstone for justice and reconciliation in the Balkans” and urging that witness support offices be established and funded across the region.

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The first issue of The Development Advocate showcases the 12 winning entries of UNDP’s first annual storytelling competition in an easy-to-read and cost-efficient newspaper-style format.

 

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