Two years after the enactment of a law that required all courts–except closed courts–to publish their rulings online, legal experts are increasingly concerned that it is ineffective and needs substantive reforms, despite recent praise from President Vladimir Putin.
Critics charge that the law is ineffective because of ambiguous wording and lax enforcement. Between one third and one half of published verdicts do not contain sufficient information for legal analysis as courts delete significant information, rendering them making them basically useless, according to Mikhail Pozdnyakov, a lawyer and researcher at the Institute for the Rule of Law at the European University at St. Petersburg. Public access to court documents allows legal scholars greater insight into the judicial process, and greater understanding of how Russian courts interpret the law. It is also vital to lawyers and activists who seek a more responsible and transparent judiciary.
The law, which came into effect 1 July 2010, was intended to make the judicial system more open by allowing access to court documents in online databases hosted on the courts’ websites. The Duma passed the law with the hope that greater openness would expose bad jurisprudence and increase judicial accountability. The Duma also hoped that the law would reduce the Russian public’s widespread lack of confidence in the judiciary.
A 2011 report by the Institute for the Rule of Law identified wide variations in the how Russian courts interpret and follow this law. The report found that 10 percent of posted verdicts were undated, and one third lacked citation numbers. One fifth of verdicts were published online more than a month after they were reached. It’s authors concluded that dates, citation numbers, and timely publication, were all necessary if these documents were to be of use to researchers.
The report offered two explanations as to why the law is not working.
First, the report criticized a paragraph in the law that guarantees the citizen’s rights to privacy and requires courts to delete personal information from verdicts. However, the law does not set guidelines as to what can or cannot be considered personal information. Often courts delete so much information that the verdicts become unreadable, according to the report. For example, data deleted from a recent burglary case included the names of the parties involved, the items stolen, the amount of harm inflicted, and the date and place where the incident took place. Lawyers and activists require such details when challenging courts’ decisions or when making complaints against judges.
Deleting personal information from these files is also burdensome on the resources of district courts. The report found that courts spend significant amounts of time and labour determining what can and cannot be published.
Under the law, each court maintains its own records database. There is no universal server, nor is there a set of universal standards that courts follow. There is not even an organization to check that courts follow the law. The government provides the hardware and software to set up these databases, but it is ultimately up to the individual courts to decide how search-friendly their databases will be and what information they will post.
The standards followed vary significantly between regions. The Chebyalinsk Regional Court has embraced sophisticated search engine technology (though it still blocks access to the texts of rulings). Meanwhile, regional courts in Kalmykia, North Ossetia-Alania, Amur Oblast, Stavropol, and Chechnya, have not posted any rulings from administrative cases as of May 2012. Regional courts are hesitant to embrace changes that would relinquish control over their jurisdictions, explains Pozdnyakov.
Making things worse, In 2012 more courts failed to fulfill the requirements of the law than in 2011.
Despite criticism the law has received, there are few signs that it will be reformed or revoked. Last month, President Putin lauded the improvements to the judicial system that the law has brought about. He acknowledged that some NGOs were concerned about the law but said that the overall effect has been positive. “Such transparency of proceedings, no doubt, increase the responsibility of judges and will narrow the space for all sorts of subjective approaches to decision making,” he said.
He also said the law was more stringent than any similar legislation in other European countries. Open access to court records is a cornerstone of most Western judicial systems. The U.K. and U.S., and provide online public access to court records. Courts in countries with civil law systems typically do not publish court decisions, as they much less important to the judicial process than in their common law counterparts, according to Anton Burkov, a specialist in Russian law. Every country in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has some variation of a civil law system.
Image courtesy of the President of Russia press service.