Saturday, April 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russians Don’t Know Their Rights – and Some Russian Lawyers May Not Either

Paul Goble

Baku, April 6 – Most Russians do not know what their legal rights are, according to a leading Moscow lawyer. And even when they do, they are often blocked in realizing them by poorly prepared police, corrupt judges, and – what is especially disturbing – by inadequately trained lawyers who often know little more than their clients do.
In an interview posted on the portal last week, Igor Trunov, head of the Central Bureau of Lawyers in Moscow, said that he welcomed incoming Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s commitment to ending the rising tide of “legal nihilism” in the Russian Federation (
Unfortunately, he continued, the Russian government faces enormous obstacles in doing so because of shortcomings in the legal system inherited from Soviet times, enormous changes in the nature of Russian legislation over the last 15 years, and inadequacies among those responsible for enforcing the law.
First of all, he said, there are problems with the laws themselves. Some are still holdovers bearing the signatures of Lenin and Stalin, while others passed since 1991 are poorly written and full of gaps. And both often make it unclear just which or even what laws apply.
That problem of a lack of legal specificity has been compounded, Trunov said, by the fact that under pressure from the West, Russia has moved away in part but not completely from the Roman-German system which relies only on positive law to the British and American one which depends on precedent.
Few in the Russian legal system and even fewer in the Russian population understand a key implication of this change. A legal system that relies on precedent, he said, requires far more legal specialists than does the other kind. Consequently, it is no surprise that half of all the lawyers in the world are American.
Second, Trunov argued, there are serious shortcomings among officials in all parts of the legal system. Few investigators have adequate legal training and thus are often not in a position to ensure that the rights of everyone touched by their activities are protected.
The situation of judges is especially difficult, the lawyer continued. Some are poorly trained holdovers from the Soviet past, many continue to take guidance from the political authorities especially at the regional level, and a large number have been corrupted in recent years by businesses seeking favorable decisions.
To address those problems, Trunov urged that the country’s Supreme Court set up a special security department to investigate charges of corruption, that judges and members of their extended families be required to report more fully on outside income, and that the country’s political leaders speak out against such corruption.
And third, the chief of the Moscow lawyers organization pointed out, many lawyers in Russia simply do not know as much about Russian laws as they should, a shortcoming that means they do not serve the interests of their clients or of justice in the ways that they could and should.
(Underscoring Trunov’s comments was an announcement by the Russian authorities this week that the diplomas of lawyers trained at Moscow State University’s law faculty after 1992 may be declared invalid because of shortcomings in training they received there (
But while pointing to these problems and expressing the hope that Medvedev will focus on them, Trunov said that Russians should not expect too much too soon. Bringing Russia up to the legal norms of today’s European Union “cannot be achieved,” he said. But raising the Russian legal system to the level of Russian “ideals of 1913” can.

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