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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lawyers Want Out of Regimented Bar

Every week or two, representatives of Moscow's law practices file into a long, narrow room and listen as a bar presidium of 15 lawyers dictate to them how to run their offices.

Bar members - who often wear winter jackets and fur hats during the meetings - are allowed to speak up, but because of chatter and disorganization, the presidium often does not hear them.

"This organizational structure is one of the last remnants of the Communist system to die", said Vladimir Mekler, a meeting regular as head of Moscow's law office No. 4. "Not a single law office is an independent entity; the bar decides all questions of our finances, what to do with our money".

The bar's monopoly over Moscow's lawyers may soon come to an end, however, in a struggle pitting a powerful Soviet-era bureaucracy against the uncertain alternative of democratic change.

A Justice Ministry draft law to be debated in the-spring allows lawyers who pass an exam to open independent firms outside the bar's control. Such freedom, supporters of the law say, will make the profession more attractive and relieve Russia's lawyer shortage.

"It is important to increase the number of lawyers in this country because of the tough, isolationist clan policy of the city's bar", said Yury Petukhov, editor of Yuridichesky Vestnik, a weekly legal newspaper.

Moscow's current structure of lawyers evolved under Stalin, who grouped the country's barristers much as he did in collectivizing Russia's farms. The result is 29 centrally controlled law clinics across Moscow such as clinic No. 5 on Pushkinskaya ulitsa, where the smell of urine and marijuana is not uncommon in the public hallway leading into the office.

Inside, clients wait - an hour is not unusual - along a long barren hallway with aging linoleum floors and neon lighting. After clinic lawyers render advice, visitors step up to a cashier at the exit and pay a few hundred rubles for quick advice. The lawyers themselves decide what to charge on more complicated matters.

"Those lawyers are often not abreast of latest developments, and their advice is superficial and sometimes worth nothing", said Oleg Lyamin, a Russian lawyer who lived in England for three years. "There is no effective legal help in this country".

Yet with capitalism increasing Russia's legal complexities, the clinics are often the only place to turn for people like Igor Valentinovich a scientist who would like to privatize his apartment.

"Before I didn't need a lawyer, I just didn't have any questions", he said. "Now it's very hard to know the law".

Just finding time with one of Moscow's 1, 300 official lawyers is increasingly difficult because of growing criminal and business caseloads, said Isai Sukharev, head of the lawyer's division of the Justice Ministry. He estimates that Russia needs as many as five times more than its current 17, 500 lawyers.

Sukharev and other critics say the bar intentionally admits few new lawyers to keep their monopoly - and accompanying high fees - intact. Bar officials say, however, that they are merely weeding out unqualified lawyers.

In recent months, a few lawyers, with the blessing of the Moscow city Justice Department, have set up full-service law firms outside the grip of the old bar. Yet judges sometimes keep these lawyers from practicing in court.

Adding to the system's woes is the increasing complexity of criminal cases arising from a 1991 law permitting lawyers to defend clients from the moment of arrest rather than at the conclusion of criminal investigations as before.

Expanding rights before increasing the pool of lawyers has hurt law enforcement, Russia's top cop recently complained.

"We adopted new legislation which guarantees the right to a lawyer from the very first state of a trial, but during this we forgot that we don't have enough lawyers, especially in rural areas", said Viktor Yerin, Russia's Interior Minister.

The responsibility to provide and pay attorneys helping the indigent still falls to the bar. A 1992 law promising to pay public defenders has been ignored, so attorneys receive just 50 rubles a day for court work from the bar itself.

Such fees have devastated courtroom lawyers financially, according to Alexei Rogatkin, assistant director of the Moscow bar. He said 60 percent of a lawyer's work is now unpaid, but both federal and local justice officials say that number is inflated more than two-fold.

Paying a Russian lawyer a day's wage equal to about a second's worth of work from his Western counterpart does not help the quality of service, lawyers say.

"When they are forced to take on these cases, they don't probably give them the time they deserve", said Tanya Smith, a lawyer and local Amnesty International representative.

The end result is a system that poorly serves the individual, said Gennady Khokhryakov, a Moscow Law Institute professor. "The poor man is thrown alone to his fate", he said. "The number of judicial mistakes is likely on the rise".