City Institute Confronts Legal Nihilism in Russia

City Institute Confronts Legal Nihilism in Russia

The existing legal system can easily be manipulated, according to researchers.

Published: August 1, 2012 (Issue # 1720)

The legal nihilism rampant in Russia was once again the focus of discussion last week, as representatives of the city’s Institute for the Rule of Law set up by the European University in St. Petersburg presented its proposals for improving the country’s legal system.

The issue of judicial independence and a fair legal system has rarely seemed so topical. Two months ago, Sergei Tsepovyaz, a member of the Sergei Tsapok gang, was fined 150,000 rubles ($4,600) for plotting to cover up the murders of 12 people (including two children) killed in the Kransnodar region in 2010 in a case that shocked the nation. Meanwhile, the members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot, some of whom have young children, enter their sixth month in pretrial detention for singing a “punk-prayer” in the Christ the Savior Cathedral.

The research presented in the city on July 27 was the result of more than two-and-a-half years of work based on judges’ polls, interviews with the participants of trials, experts and judges (including almost 30 interviews with current and retired judges and chief judges), and analysis of available sentence statistic data. The survey covered six regions from different federal regions, including St. Petersburg.

Vadim Volkov, supervisor of the Institute for the Rule of Law, said that his team had tried to analyze not the laws themselves, but the operating principles of the legal authorities and trials, as well as the subculture of trials in Russia.

“Everybody knows that Russian trials are not independent nowadays,” said Volkov.

“During the holding of trials, we can see no sign of the separation of powers.”

Some issues are likely to elicit more predictable trial outcomes than others.

Increasingly often, courts reject cases concerning electoral fraud, or grant almost every motion made by the public prosecutor’s office, according to Volkov. For courts, it is easier to accept the position already taken by the investigative committee, he said.

“In 99 percent of such cases, courts issue a guilty verdict. We call this phenomenon the ‘guilty trend,’” said Volkov.

Based on the results of the research, its authors identified four main factors that restrict the independence of judges: The influence of chief judges, which goes significantly beyond their commission; the non-transparent system of appointing judges; the influence of the public prosecutor’s office; and the excessive workload of the judges, which prevents them from considering all the details of cases.

Taking into account these factors, the researchers devised a series of measures that could gradually help to increase the independence of judges. First on their list is the reform of the concept itself of chief judges.

“It’s important to revoke the system of bonus payments, because currently, 50 percent of the judge’s salary depends on that,” said Kirill Titayev, senior researcher at the Institute for the Rule of Law. “The decision about the vacation or material compensation of the judge depends de facto only on the will of that particular court’s chief judge.”

The researchers also propose restricting the opportunity of accused parties to gain any influence on the judge. They suggest this could be done by prohibiting members of the security forces (in particular the public prosecutor’s office and the investigative committee) from taking part in the appointment of judges (for example, by entering collegiate bodies).

Volkov said that the problem lies not in the personality of specific judges but in the overall existing judicial system.

“We have created a system that — from the point of view of its organization, both formal and informal, and of its values and measures, the recruitment and career advancement of judges — can easily be manipulated,” he said.

“All our suggestions lie on [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev’s table, in the Public Chamber, in the presidential administration. Even if just 20 percent of them were approved, that would gradually bring about positive changes.

“But full-blown judicial reform will be possible only after changes in the political situation in Russia,” he added. “For now, the existing political system has a vested interest in the existing (inefficient) legal system.”

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