Vienna, June 26 –Russia’s judges are not yet the balanced and independent actors they are supposed to be, according to a survey conducted by Moscow’s Independent Legal Experts Council, and as of today, relatively few Russians look to them as the best place for the resolution of their problems, according to a poll released last week.
Yesterday’s “Novyye izvestiya” reported that “more than half of all judges” surveyed by the Legal Experts Council said that they were independent, a view prosecutors shared. But at the same time, “the overwhelming majority of lawyers and legal rights activists did not agree with that assessment” (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-06-25/92627/).
Such a different in opinion, the council’s Sergei Nasonov said, is “not accidental” but rather reflects the tendency of judges to side with prosecutors and to convict rather than exonerate those charged with crimes. This “deviation,” the paper suggested, is very much a survival of Soviet times.
According to lawyer Anna Stavitskaya, “judges to one’s great regret as a rule openly side” with the prosecution rather than serve as “independent arbiters” in the case. They are afraid that their own careers will suffer if they do otherwise because they are very dependent, Lyudmila Karnozova of the Moscow Institute of State and Law said, on “the judicial vertical.”
“It is no secret that the quality of work of judges is rated on the basis of the number of decisions that are overruled by superior courts,” she said. (The rate of reversals is now running at about 25 percent.) Moreover, judges prefer “not to return soft sentences” because “they are afraid of being accused of corruption.”
Indeed, lawyers told the paper, the only real positive outcome of the ongoing judicial reform has been that judges now have a somewhat more positive view of juries, although, in the words of Stavitskaya, they continue to limit the defense and to manipulate juries in order to get the outcomes they or those in power want.
Such attitudes help to explain the findings of a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation that was reported last week. The prestige of the Russian judicial system remains low, although it is somewhat higher than it was only a few years ago, its sociological survey found (www.fom.ru/topics/3241.html).
At present, 28 percent of Russians have a generally positive view of courts and judges, while 39 percent have a negative one, a slight improvement on the figures found by a poll in October 2004 when only 26 percent of Russians said they had a positive view and 46 percent indicated that they had a negative one.
But far more important than those global attitudes for the future of the Russian legal system and the possible emergence of civil society there are figures on the share of Russians who are prepared to go to court to seek the resolution of conflicts. Only one Russian in three – 34 percent – is now prepared to use the courts to do so, while 39 percent say they would not.
Again those figures are slightly better than four years ago and young people are somewhat more prepared to use the courts than their elders, but the Public Opinion Foundation noted that “the differences in the assessments of ‘fathers’ and ‘children’” concerning their willingness to use the courts are much smaller than their global assessments of the legal system.