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date: 18 April 2024

Russian Legal System and Use of Lawlocked

Russian Legal System and Use of Lawlocked

  • Kathryn HendleyKathryn HendleyUniversity of Wisconsin–Madison

Summary

The Russian legal system has a spotty reputation, both domestically and internationally. The distrust stems from well-publicized cases involving enemies of political or economic elites in which the outcome in favor of the elites is obviously predetermined. Coexisting with such cases are millions of mundane cases in which judges adhere scrupulously to the statutory law. This sort of legal dualism is not uncommon under authoritarianism.

Russia’s constitution reflects this dualism. Its relevance to daily life and its capacity to constrain arbitrary state actions is questionable. Adopted in 1993, it proclaims Russia to be a state governed by the rule of law and includes a chapter with a comprehensive list of rights guaranteed to citizens which cannot be changed without convening a constitutional assembly. The constitutional court, which is a post-Soviet institutional innovation, is charged with ensuring compliance with the constitution. Amending the constitution requires consent from both the national legislature and two-thirds of the regional legislatures. The electoral dominance of the political party associated with Vladimir Putin has made this seemingly high threshold for amendments easily achievable. He has bent the constitution to his political will with multiple amendments, culminating in a set of over 100 amendments approved in 2020.

The use of courts by Russian citizens and businesses has increased steadily during the post-Soviet period. As a rule, disputes are handled quickly and inexpensively. Even so, litigating is not the preferred option; Russians typically end up in court only when informal negotiations fail. As a rule, they go to court to solve practical problems rather than to advance issues of principle. The courts’ dockets are dominated by civil claims, such as family law disputes and various forms of debt collection. The straightforward nature of the procedural rules allows many litigants to represent themselves. In criminal cases, which are fewer, defendants are required to be represented by a licensed attorney (advokat). The state covers the cost of legal representation for the poor. Litigants who are dissatisfied with the outcomes of their cases can pursue appeals, culminating in the Russian Supreme Court. Citizens who believe that officials have violated their rights can pursue their claims in the stand-alone constitutional court, whose decisions serve as binding precedent.

The post-Soviet era has witnessed wide ranging reforms to the legal system. Some were aimed at depoliticizing the courts. Judges are selected by a professional council dominated by judges that assesses candidates’ knowledge of law and appropriateness for the bench. They enjoy life tenure, subject to removal for cause—a process that is occasionally hijacked to remove judges who fail to toe the line in political cases. The reforms also sought to ease the heavy workload of judges by introducing a form of plea bargaining in criminal cases and opening the door to a type of summary judgment in civil cases in which defendants have conceded their culpability.

Subjects

  • Governance/Political Change
  • Political Economy
  • Politics, Law, Judiciary

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