Justice Awaits Reform

With President Vladimir Putin's emphasis on introducing a uniform set of laws across Russia, the country's leadership is paying new attention to the problems of the court systems and the judges who work for them. At the All-Russian Congress of Judges held in November, Putin and Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev stressed how much had been accomplished during the last 10 years. The tone of their speeches contradicted reports from judges in the regions, who pointed out the poor conditions in which they work. While there has been progress over the last decade, a considerable amount remains to be done. Putin indicated that he preferred gradual change to radical reform.

The Russian court system consists of a Constitutional Court, courts of general jurisdiction and arbitration courts, which focus on economic disputes. The State Duma is considering legislation establishing an administrative court system to make it easier to convict regional and local authorities of abusing the privileges of their offices. Additionally, there are charter courts in the regions and military courts. Nine regions are experimenting with implementing a jury system. A system of bailiffs, created in 1997, works to enforce judicial decisions.

During the last decade, the amount of litigation in Russia has increased dramatically as citizens and corporations see the legal system as potentially providing relief. Lebedev estimates that there are three times as many cases now as in 1994. Veniamin Yakovlev, chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that arbitration courts now deal with twice as many cases as in 1995. A system of justices of the peace is functioning in 33 regions to reduce the burden on the regular civil and criminal court systems.

The most pressing problem facing the judicial system is the lack of funding, according to Filipp Sterkin, the general director of the Supreme Court's Judicial Department. Despite recent budget increases, there is still not enough money to address the courts' current needs. In 1998, the budget included 3.4 billion rubles for judges. In 2000, it rose to 7 billion rubles and will be 11 billion in 2001, according to current plans. However, Sterkin told Vremya Novostei that the system needs at least 35 billion rubles to function at an acceptable level.

In many cases, the judge serves as both the prosecutor and final arbiter, turning court cases into something closer to inquisitions.

The lack of resources opens the judicial system up to corruption, as judges make decisions to advance their personal economic interests rather than apply the law. In particular, without federal financing, judges must rely on regional or local authorities for things like office space, apartments, municipal services and other necessities. They become beholden to the local authorities, who in turn acquire the right to violate the law with impunity.

Another problem is the lack of legislation implementing in practice the general principles laid out in the Constitution. In many cases, the judge serves as both the prosecutor and final arbiter, turning court cases into something closer to inquisitions. Many of these practices are inherited from the Soviet era. Also, many laws are contradictory, particularly those on property rights. As a result, legal battles can drag on indefinitely as one or another side puts forward new twists in its legal argument.

The lack of qualified personnel to staff the legal system further compromises the execution of justice in Russia. Good judges are drawn to higher salaries offered by private sector positions, leaving vacancies or less qualified judges in their place. The remaining judges must deal with ever-increasing workloads. There are currently 16,742 judges of general jurisdiction, at a time when 35,734 are needed. Russia has one judge for every 9,500 residents, while Germany has one for every 4,000 and England for every 3,000, according to an article in Kommersant Vlast.

At the Congress of Judges in November, Putin announced plans over the next 10 years to double the number of judges at higher salaries. To attract better people, the job needs to be made more prestigious. Currently, people who seek to become judges are often those who otherwise would not be able to secure an apartment or health insurance. A Moscow judge earns up to $350 a month, while a good lawyer earns no less than $1,000. In the regions, judges earn between 1,500 to 5,000 rubles a month (less than $200). As a result, standards for hiring judges are low and many simply do not have an adequate knowledge of the law.

Even when courts reach a just decision, there is a strong chance that it will not be implemented. Before 1997, when the institution of bailiffs was established, only 20 percent of court decisions actually were implemented, according to Sergei Popov, the deputy chairman of the State Duma constitutional legislation and state-building committee. Since then he claimed that more than 60 percent of legal decisions are implemented. However, there are clearly not enough bailiffs to go around. Although the system requires 33,000 bailiffs, Russia currently employs only 7,500 according to Kommersant Vlast. In the past, the winner of a court case could have paid a private firm from 10 percent to 50 percent of the settlement to actually collect it. Now the bailiffs perform this work, charging the party that refuses to implement a court decision 7 percent.

Beyond the headaches it causes for Russian citizens, the Russian legal system is a big problem for foreign investors. "We constantly witness the scandalous injustice of the judges, particularly in the regions," Konstantin Konstantinov, a lawyer for Chadbourne & Parke told Vedomosti. He recommended that his clients avoid the Russian legal system if at all possible.

Robert Orttung is the editor of the EastWest Institute's Russian Regional Report, for which he wrote this comment.