Historical Overview of the Legal Profession in Croatia

The legal profession in Croatia has a long tradition, reaching back to ancient times. The first historical documents in which attorneys-at-law (Croatian: odvjetnici; Latin: advocates, procuratores) are mentioned have a medieval origin - the first of them being The Vinodol Code (Vinodolski zakon) from 1288. In the coastal area - Dalmatia - the roots of the legal profession are even deeper and reach to the times of the Roman Empire.

After a long period of customary (common-law) regulation, the first written statutes on the powers and duties of attorneys were enacted in 1769 and 1804. In 1852 the so-called Attorneys Order (Odvjetnicki red), passed by the Austro-Hungarian royal government, came into force, providing that the Minister of Justice (later: Croatian Royal Government) shall appoint the advocates and determine their seat. The required preconditions for appointment were a doctoral degree in Law, a successfully passed bar examination and three years of legal practice. The number of attorneys was limited (numerus clausus). Attorneys were then registered at the highest court - the so-called Banski stol, but at the same time two local bar associations were formed, for eastern and western parts of Croatia. These first bar associations were also under strong governmental control. On the other hand, in Dalmatia, which was under direct Austrian rule, the separate Attorneys Order (Advokatenordnung) was passed in 1868, providing for the first time freedom to become an attorney-at-law, without a governmental right to reject the application of candidates who meet the necessary requirements. This event is today celebrated as the beginning of an independent and autonomous legal profession.

In continental Croatia, the free exercise of the legal profession was recognised by the Law on Advocates (Zakon o advokatima) in 1929. By this royal law of former Yugoslavia, eight autonomous bar associations were constituted, the Croatian Bar Association being one of them. Since then, every person who could prove that he/she fulfilled the mandatory preconditions had the right to be inscribed in the Register of Attorneys run by the respective bar association, without further confirmation by the state authorities. These conditions were basically the same as today: a legal education, legal practice and the completion of the bar examination at the respective appellate court.

Although the legal profession was held under suspicion by the communist regime in former Yugoslavia, this system was practically unaffected by communist laws, although occasional attempts to submit attorneys and the bar associations to state control were made, without any success. Nevertheless, individual harassment of attorneys took place in some political cases. In that respect, Croatian and other former Yugoslav attorneys were in an unique situation in the whole of Eastern Europe, where existing laws managed to destroy the freedom of the legal profession to a much greater extent.