British solicitors to settle Balkan blood feuds

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The Independent Online
HIGH STREET solicitors and English country judges used to dealing with squabbles over garden fences are to be sent to Kosovo to help settle far more bloody disputes between Serbs and Albanians.

The Council of Europe is to name 30 British lawyers it is recommending for judicial and advisory posts in Kosovo's justice system tomorrow. The lawyers, working with the United Nations, will defend and prosecute cases, as well as sit as judges in property and family disputes.

The list includes the names of three district judges and 27 High Street solicitors who are accustomed to more mundane matters, such as ruling and advising on garden hedge disputes and shoplifting. In their new roles, the British lawyers will come face-to-face with revenge killings and bitter property feuds which have torn Kosovo's ethnic communities apart.

But Humbert de Biolley, the man in charge of compiling the list of lawyers for the council, said the inclusion of the British lawyers would be vital in helping to prop up an ailing justice system. Since the end of the war the Kosovo civil and criminal justice systems had almost ground to a halt, with a backlog of hundreds of cases waiting to be heard, he said.

The legal settlement of disputes in Kosovo has been stymied by the accusation of bias on both sides. "If the judge is an Albanian then the Serb will make the accusation and if he is a Serb then it will come from the Albanian," Mr de Biolley said. The arrival of external judges would "help guarantee independence".

Far more lawyers from Britain were willing to go to Kosovo than from any other European country - of the 300 judicial volunteers from across Europe, 70 were from the UK. Many of the British applicants had to be rejected to ensure tomorrow's final list of 250 "reflected a proper European balance", said Mr de Biolley. Nevertheless, the British still form the largest contingent, followed by France. Appointments are for an initial six months, and most of the lawyers will be based in the capital, Pristina.

The British lawyers will also have to come to grips with the different legal system in Kosovo. The Yugoslav judicial process is based on the European inquisitorial system, where the judge attempts to establish the facts of the case by questioning each side's lawyers. The British judicial system determines criminal and civil disputes by lawyers putting forward the arguments leaving the judge or the jury to choose a winner.

Mr Biolley said that the difference between the two systems matters more in criminal cases, where examining magistrates conducted the hearings. But the British lawyers will be able to rely on their experience of case law and precedent, which was a common feature of both systems.