Assessing the Courts in Russia: Parameters of Progress under Putin

Article excerpt

Abstract: On the basis of a set of general criteria for assessing court systems (independence, power, accountability, accessibility, efficiency, procedural roles, and public assessment), this article analyzes the achievements and shortcomings of judicial reform in the Russian Federation during the Yeltsin and Putin eras. It goes on to dissect the state of the courts at the end of Putin's presidency, including public attitudes toward them, and to suggest a series of changes in Russia's judicial system that would constitute or reflect further improvements, including a decline in the power of chairs of courts, more effective recruitment and training of judges, and a new approach to their evaluation. The article argues that there have been substantial improvements in management and support of courts and the judiciary in the Russian Federation over the past fifteen years, while at the same time informal practices continue whereby powerful persons see courts in instrumental terms and from time to time try to exert inappropriate influence on the outcome of cases.

Keywords: criminal justice, judicial independence, judicial power, judicial reform

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The Soviet legacy included courts that were dependent and weak, whose reform had only just begun. The Yeltsin era witnessed considerable progress in making judges more independent and powerful, but the efforts were seriously constrained by budgetary shortcomings and paralysis in the legislative approval of needed procedural changes. The Putin administration overcame both of these obstacles and at the same time began addressing the thorny question of how to make courts and judges accountable without undue harm to their independence. The administration also started to address the skepticism about the courts among a significant part of the public through efforts to improve media coverage, make information about courts more available, and make courts user-friendly. Although praiseworthy and bound to improve the reality and the perception of the administration of justice overall, these initiatives did not end attempts to exert influence on judges and case outcomes by powerful people (in the public and private sectors) or the mechanisms that facilitated their efforts.

I begin by identifying criteria for assessing the quality of the administration of justice in any country, including in the post-Soviet world, and suggesting specific markers (usually qualitative) connected to each of the criteria developed above. Then, I provide an account of relevant policy initiatives in judicial reform undertaken first under Yeltsin and then in the Putin years. After that I provide an assessment of the state of the courts in the Russian Federation in 2007 in light of the criteria and markers supplied in the first section. I conclude with a look to the future and the identification of crucial markers of change for the post-Putin era.

Criteria of Assessment and Markers

The purpose of courts is to provide to members of the public the opportunity to obtain the impartial resolution of disputes (mainly through adjudication, but sometimes through mediation) in a timely manner. Courts must act fairly and expeditiously, and the design of judicial systems should contribute to these ends.

I propose seven criteria for assessing a court system, some of which break down into a number of components, each of which can serve as markers. (1) They are the independence of judges and courts; procedural law aimed at ensuring equality among the parties; the power of the courts; the system of judicial accountability; accessibility of the courts; efficiency of performance (and the factors that encourage it); and public attitudes toward the courts.

By judicial independence I mean structural arrangements that improve the chances of impartial outcomes by reducing or eliminating potential lines of dependence of judges, both on external sources and on others within the judicial system. …