President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev:
The quality of judges’ work is one of the defining factors of our country’s democratic development and we will work firmly and consistently towards making our entire judicial system function more effectively.
Looking at the state of the judicial system today, we have in principle resolved the system’s fundamental problems over these last years, over the time since the new Russian state was formed. Over this time we have built up a body of constitutional law, developed economic and administrative legal procedure, brought back the institutions of jury trials and judges of the peace, and rebuilt the bailiffs’ service. Our judicial and law enforcement infrastructure, investigations, prosecution, system of barristers and notaries in general have all undergone significant development. A new body of professionals has taken shape in the courts, a full-fledged staff of specialists and judges’ assistants.
Access to the courts is important for the public, and so is information on their work. The time has come to pass a law that would ensure information on the courts’ work is made public, including through electronic means, through the Internet. We need to make information on the progress of cases in the courts transparent and guarantee access to court decisions. Given the role the courts play today, the law could also stipulate that information on the judges’ work be made public, including their selection and appointment.
I want to say a few words in particular about some especially important issues. Above all, this concerns the issue of confidence, public confidence in the courts – a question of crucial importance for our country. Greater confidence in the courts means respect for the objectiveness and fairness of the courts’ decisions. We know from the experts’ assessments that public confidence is not very high at the moment, and this makes it imperative that we give this problem our full attention.
Going by the laws, the courts look to have all the procedural and material conditions they need to be independent. Going by what is written in our laws, we should have no problems in this area at all. But why then are our judges de jure independent, while in fact they are in reality not always so independent, and why do they make decisions that are not always based on objective examination of the case before them?
This is in many ways a rhetorical question. We are talking about the demands of the law, after all. Clearly, this brings to the forefront the whole issue of the quality of the people working in the courts in general. Several factors combine to create the kind of quality we need: a good legal education, a high level of professionalism, and of course, a spotless reputation. The majority of our judges entirely measure up to these standards. In our organisational and legal decisions on improving the work of the courts, we base ourselves on the assumption that these qualities and standards are met right from the start.
I also want to say a few words in particular about legal aid for the public. Over the last 15 years, people have become accustomed to the idea that disputes need to be settled in the courts and not by turning to some other organisations for help. But most people still have only fuzzy notions of how to go about this, where to go, what to do, how to put together a competent lawsuit, how to defend their rights in legal proceedings. This inevitably creates a feeling of helplessness before the courts, and this situation arises precisely because people are poorly informed and have little access to barristers’ services.
Since 2005, we have been carrying out an experiment in establishing a system of free legal aid for people in the low-income bracket. In a number of regions special legal offices have been opened to help people put together the documents they need and act as representatives during court proceedings. We need to study the results of this experiment and make our decisions.
Another issue is that of limiting the use of imprisonment as a sentence. I mentioned this issue recently in my Address to the Federal Assembly. A huge number of people in our country are sentenced to prison terms. We know full well what impact this has on their attitudes towards life generally and how difficult it is to readapt these people to society once more. I therefore support the views expressed here on the need to decriminalise a number of acts that do not pose any great danger to public safety, and also to make wider use of alternative forms of sentences. We need to make a general review of practice and draw up proposals on improving the laws in this area.
Another matter is that of the courts’ authority and independence. We know very well that the courts’ independence is the key condition for their work. All forms of pressure on the courts are unacceptable. As our society develops, pressure on the courts takes different forms. There are far fewer cases today of calls from this or that official at whatever level with this or that request or proposal, but new forms of pressure are appearing instead. Sometimes entire campaigns are organised. The scheme used is simple, elegant, and effective.
When the demand arises to ensure the court hands down the ‘right’ decision, information appears in the Internet, for example, where of course there is no regulation and no need to prove or check anything. Often this is false or incomplete information. This information then starts to spread to other sources and eventually forms a clear idea in public opinion and all of this without any phone calls or payments or anything of this sort. Moreover, sometimes this looks like part of the fight against corruption. The courts find themselves facing pressure of this sort today. We need to look at what we can do in such cases to distinguish between what is real information and what is a specially orchestrated campaign, a paid attempt to put pressure on judges and push them into making this or that decision.
I cite this example only to show that society is changing and our response, the legal steps we take, the legislation we pass, needs to keep up with these changes and be appropriate to the situation.
For all our respect for the [Council of Europe Court of Human Rights] Strasbourg court and any other international tribunal, they cannot and should not replace the Russian justice system, and this is absolutely clear. In this respect, our court system must be absolutely independent. But our court system then has to be effective enough to reduce to a minimum the number of people turning to the international courts. Achieving this is a separate task we need to work on. We will perhaps need to look at making some transformations in our judicial system.