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Official website of the President of Russia

Transcripts   /

Speech at a conference of the heads of republican and regional courts

January 24, 2000, Moscow

Vladimir Putin:

Esteemed Mr Lebedev,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

You have gathered here to sum up the results of the past year. But I am sure that this will not be the end of the discussion. This year, Russia has turned a new page in its history. This is why now is the right time to openly discuss what changes have taken place in our judicial system over the last decade, and what it should look like in the near future.

Of all legal professionals, judges have always enjoyed a special prestige, and they have been praised for a measured approach in their words and actions. In your hands, the law acquires real power and becomes an instrument of upholding justice. You are acting on behalf of the state and hand down your verdicts on behalf of the Russian Federation.

A court of law means power, an enormous power that entails huge responsibilities. The usual view of a court as a disciplinary machine, as giving a speedy but not always fair judgment, should be confined to the past once and for all. The habit of seeking protection from superiors should be replaced in people’s minds with an understanding of the convenience and advantages of taking the matter to court, and defending their rights with your assistance.

Today, citizens are doing this more willingly and frequently. But do the judicial systems and courts live up to these higher expectations? This is what we are going to talk about now. This is a good opportunity to ponder over the current condition of the judicial system.

At present, about 850,000 criminal and civil cases are awaiting trial in Russian courts. Almost 8,000 cases were being tried in the Moscow courts alone as of January 1. During the past year, more than 2,000 cases were returned for further investigation, and one-third of all verdicts delayed.

Regrettably, these figures show not only how busy judges are, but also how many people are still waiting for a fair resolution of their problems. Meanwhile, in many cases these problems will determine their future. Both you and I are fully aware of this. The defendants are spending months and sometimes years in detention facilities. Hearings on civil cases involving housing, inheritance and family issues are delayed for ages.

Meanwhile, people are judging the effectiveness of government power, the integrity of courts, and the level of democracy by such worldly matters. For this reason, it is a huge liability to both the judiciary and the country’s leaders, and therefore to government authority as a whole.

The judiciary’s real independence is the best indicator that a state is based on the rule of law. But this is an old and universal problem. It is as old as the world itself. In his time, Anatoly Koni said that a judge should be “protected against conditions conducive to cowardice and forced assentation.” He hit the nail on the head.

Regrettably, we are witnessing relapses of the old attitude to courts as an appendage to the bureaucratic machine.

For instance, it is the Russian president’s prerogative to delegate powers to judges. In this context, it is alarming that some regional leaders are trying to place judicial systems under their control.

Everyone remembers the Ingush leaders’ attempt to hold a republican referendum on the procedures for appointing judges in violation of federal law and guarantees of equal rights for citizens throughout Russia.

Moreover, the constitutions of some Russian republics still contain clauses under which only their residents can be appointed judges. This very formula has a dozen transgressions.

I would like to say right away that here we fully support the position of the Supreme Court and the Russian Federation’s Council of Judges, which oppose any encroachments on the existing procedures for forming courts and appointing federal judges.

I am equally against any talk about revising the judiciary’s current status and imposing limits on the guarantees of their immunity, independence and autonomy sanctioned by the law. Any attempts to transgress upon these constitutional principles will be nipped in the bud.

More than eight years ago, the then Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation approved the Judiciary Reform Concept, aimed at creating a strong and independent legal system.

The judiciary took a direct part in this process of renewal. The Supreme Court initiated and adopted laws on military tribunals, the judicial department and the funding of courts in the Russian Federation. But for all the importance of the adopted legislation, the judicial system is still ridden with many serious problems and has many tasks still ahead of it.

First, the legal foundation for administering justice is not in full accordance with the Russian Constitution. There are unjustified delays in the adoption of basic laws on courts of law. There are no new codes for criminal and legal proceedings and no legislative acts on administrative proceedings. Courts badly need these for their work. Russia’s Constitutional Court has already issued 14 resolutions on discrepancies between individual provisions of the code for criminal proceedings and the Constitution. The general message of these resolutions is to reinforce adversary proceedings. Maybe it is time to implement in full a constitutional rule whereby a person may be arrested or detained only on the basis of a court ruling. This does not mean that we should do it right now, but we should give it serious thought.

Second, the old rules do not provide effective legal protection of the lawful rights and interests of citizens, in particular, those rules related to providing broader access to justice and defence during a preliminary investigation.

Finally, Russian legislation should be reformed in line with the universally recognized norms of international law.

You know that on May 5, 1998, Russia ratified the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which has become part of our legal system. In addition to that, we have recognized the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Today, we must pay special attention to those problems of the Russian judicial system that the European Court may object to.

First of all, this applies to meeting reasonable deadlines for court deliberations. The European Court does not accept excuses such as overload, a lack of judges or shortage of funds when national courts drag out trials.

Today, I would like to discuss another key aspect of your activities – cases involving economic crimes. The transition from a centralized, planned economy to one governed by the market is impossible without strengthening the foundations of the latter, primarily, the effective performance of legal institutions.

In regulating the economy, the state should primarily guarantee the market’s streamlined functioning in a stable environment. This demand fully applies not only to the legislative and executive branches of government but also to courts of law and arbitration.

The new civil and criminal codes combine two approaches to the protection of the rights and lawful interests of participants in economic relations. On the one hand, they guarantee an entrepreneur’s freedom of economic performance and rights. On the other hand, because of its interests, the state has its demands on economic agents as well. Your role here is to guarantee the interests of all participants by promoting tax collection, as well as combating money laundering and the illegal export of capital.

I would like to stress one point. The government has been heavily criticized for abandoning the economy without a reason. I have already mentioned this several times, but I believe I can repeat it again when talking to my colleagues. The state should not interfere in the economy, as was the case before. It should not resurrect a command-based planned economy. Instead, it should create powerful levers and understandable rules, and it should enforce them in addition to regulating the economy. The state should make sure that the rules are the same for everyone and guarantee that all market players follow them. Only in this case will we have a transparent and attractive investment environment. Needless to say, the state should not only create new mechanisms, but also keep the old ones in good shape.

This directly applies to the funding of the judicial system. Only recently, this question became so urgent that Russia’s Constitutional Court had to have its say.

Article 124 of the Constitution reads that “courts of law shall be financed only out of the federal budget and financing shall ensure the full and independent administration of justice in accordance with federal law.”

This concerns not only the funding of programmes for the development of the judicial system, but also the financial support of judges themselves. While receiving a modest salary, you are dealing with cases worth billions of roubles. You are fighting crime and dangerous offenders without proper protection for yourselves.

These are the realities of today, and they do not give much reason for optimism. It goes without saying that everything should comply with the state’s abilities. But it is also clear that if the state wants everything to function normally, and to have a productive economy and effective institutions, it must pay more attention to this.

I do not want to make any promises. It would be wrong to speak about a big rise in salaries. But I would like you to know that we understand that a rise is necessary, and we will certainly move in this direction. I must say that much has already been done to give judges their due. Last year, judges and court administration officials received their full salaries on time. Funding was increased by almost 184 million roubles in order to raise the official rate of pay. But this is only half the battle.

Programmes to strengthen the rule of law and combat crime were not adequately funded. Many of the laws already passed are not being enforced for lack of money. Defendants’ constitutional right to a trial by jury is not being put into practice for the same reason. Today, trial by jury is limited to only nine regions of Russia, but it should be operating everywhere.

Finally, sometimes for lack of money courts cannot even meet their basic needs and summon witnesses, interpreters, and experts as the law demands. They do not have enough forms, envelopes, and money for mailing expenses. There are still not enough computers or technical facilities for court records.

We will not shirk our responsibility for this situation, and we will work to improve it. I have already said much to this effect. I think that if the state fails to pay proper attention to this problem, it will not be able to collect the taxes owed to it, and the economy will not perform well. It should therefore not be tight-fisted with the courts.

Meanwhile, courts should also take steps to control their own expenses and streamline cash flows. Otherwise it will be difficult to resist attempts by some local leaders to “privatize” courts through their partial funding.

There is one more major problem that I want to point out: personnel.

I have already said that complaints about overload in the courts have surfaced so often that they have become commonplace. Indeed, there are still more than 1,000 vacancies for judges.

This year, the authorised staff size was increased by a thousand positions by presidential decree. Federal judges will be relieved of part of the burden by the implementation of a federal law on justices of the peace; almost 5,500 people will be sworn in as justices.

These plans are making it even more urgent to create an effective system for the training and proper screening of judges. It is essential not only to improve the screening process, but also to streamline the rules for appointing judges and removing them from office. The current procedures are complicated, take an extremely long time, and do not guarantee promotion.

But I would also like to say that personnel problems are not limited to what I have just described. The authority of judicial power and its effective performance are largely determined by judges’ qualifications and their having an unbiased attitude. Needless to say, on average we have two or three times fewer judges per capita than many Western countries. But this should not deny our citizens their right to a speedy trial.

My friends,

You know well that the results of your work have a direct effect on the political and economic life of our society. Courts have been and remain a key factor in safeguarding democracy and allowing Russia to forge ahead in the new century.

You have received a lot of extra work since the December elections. Citizens and associations have alerted you to violations of electoral laws by both federal and regional bodies of government. This flood of complaints is not likely to subside before the beginning of summer.

You know our position – I mean the government’s position. The state and society need honest election results, and an open and honest election campaign. This is the only way of achieving a fully-fledged and effective government. This is the only way of guaranteeing democracy and order.

During the conference you will certainly talk much about the implementation of the judicial reform. Let’s tell it straight – this reform has been dragged out; it is difficult, and society is looking at it ambiguously. Human faith in the inviolability of the law depends on its final result and on your personal decency and professionalism.

I very much hope that you will continue to be guided in your work by the principles of professional honour, judicial duty and responsibility to our homeland. I would like to wish Russia’s judiciary the very best.

Thank you for your attention.

January 24, 2000, Moscow