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Russians increasingly distrustful of courts: what can reverse this trend?

December 27, 2013, 16:21 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, December 27. /ITAR-TASS/. On Thursday, December 26, Russian courts pronounced important rulings in several high-profile cases. The Supreme Court announced plans to revise the first and second cases of the Yukos oil company. Furthermore, the head of the Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, voiced the opinion the sentence in the first ‘Yukos case’ against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev should be softened because of violations by courts of lower instance. The criminal case against members of the Left Front, Leonid Razvozzhayev and Sergey Udaltsov, both accused of instigating mass disorders in Bolotnaya Square in May 2012, has been sent back to the prosecutor’s office to correct errors in the bill of indictment. Lately, the Chertanovo district court refused to pass a verdict on nationalist activist Daniil Konstantinov, accused of homicide. The judge ordered re-investigation, having agreed that the first probe had flagrantly violated the Criminal Procedure Code.

Pundits see these developments as the first signs of what may prove a wind of change inside the judiciary. The court system has recently seen a crisis of confidence in the Russian society, which holds many judges responsible for corruption and ‘telephone justice’, and the whole system of the administration of justice, for its conviction bias.

A member of the Russian Civic Chamber, Director of the Institute for Monitoring of the Efficiency of Law Enforcement, Yelena Lukyanova, is sure that these decisions “cannot be considered a sudden thaw or something connected with the Kremlin’s policy”.

“The judges are sick and tired of pressures from the authorities, public disdain of the court system, and distrust of courts,” the lawyer is quoted by the Osobaya Bukva (Specletter) web site as saying.

Lukyanova believes this does credit to modern society: “This is precisely what they call ‘quantity turned quality’.”

“This process was bound to start sooner or later. Under-investigated cases, sloppy paperwork, refusal to accept crucial evidence to dossiers, failure to establish cause-and-effect links between acts of wrongdoing and the ensuing consequences, frequent absence of corpora delicti from the investigation files - all this was bound to explode the judicial community at last.”

“I hope this will become the starting point along the path towards the day when judges will shrug off these chains,” Lukyanova added. “That done, the judicial system may begin to clean itself of incompetent staff.”

In the meantime, Russians’ trust in courts is heading for the bottom of the abyss. According to Levada-center polls, over the last three years the number of people who believe resolving their problems would be the easiest in a court of law has declined 8 percent to an all-time low of 33 percent. This means two- thirds of Russians would not bother seeking justice in court.

The attitude to judges is mixed. When the Public Opinion Foundation FOM asked respondents how they saw Russian judges as a whole, 17 percent said they believed in “honest, fair and incorruptible” law-abiding judges, whereas 15 percent described them exclusively as “corrupt bribers and blackmailers”. According to experts, courts are no more perceived as an operating institution.

“Surely, there are some competent, skillful judges that fathom each case in front of them, but their existence is surely not the system’s merit; they rather manage to carry on in defiance of it,” a member of the presidential council for the codification of civil legislation, Konstantin Sklovsky, is quoted by Ogonyok magazine as saying. “Close scrutiny of the current civil trial practices, especially cases of some importance or difficulty, gives an impression of unfairness, incompetence, arbitrariness and hopelessness.”

Lack of confidence in courts is also the reason for emigration and insufficient investments, acclaimed lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky (the Russian government’s plenipotentiary representative in high court instances) and Tamara Morshchakova (a former judge of the Constitutional Court) believe. “The main reason for massive emigration is the lack of feeling of protection, much because of distrust of courts, since people have no evidence courts are really independent,” they said in an article in the government-published daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “Therefore, neither foreign, nor Russian investments show any sign of increase, and businessmen do not want to invest into and develop production. Entrepreneurs fear illegal slams, hostile takeovers, and unjustified charges of supervising authorities and do not believe the court would protect their rights.”

Distrust of the justice system, the lawyers believe, “is the reason of reasons”: “Its elimination would allow to settle many issues that worry the authorities and the expert community and concern one and all.”

This, they think, primarily requires a fundamentally new approach to personnel policies and to financing the court system. Employment should be the task of an independent body comprised of judges, other lawyers and proxies of civil society. As for financing schemes, courts should get a fixed share of the national budget: “It is clear that when the judicial system has to beg for money every year, no real independence of courts is possible.”

Also, the gradual deterioration of trial by jury, whose competences are steadily shrinking, must be halted. if the guarantees of independent justice are to be enhanced, Barshchevsky and Morshchakova believe.


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