Reforms during Alexander II's reign

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Judicial Reforms 1864

Introduced a new legal system which consisted of local courts under the Justices of Peace for minor offences. There were also District courts, Judicial chambers and the Senate for graver offences. It was modelled on systems in the West, especially in terms of openness and procedure. 

  • The principle of equality before the law was established as opposed to different courts for different classes.
  • Criminal cases at district level were to be heard before barristers and a jury, selected from lists of property owners above a certain level, drawn up by the Zemstva. Judges were appointed by the Tsar.
  • Proceedings were to be open to the public and conducted orally. The accused could see the judge and employ a defence counsel.
  • Judicial chambers were courts of appeal for cases heard in district courts and responsible for jurisdiction in certain high crimes- with judges appointed by the Tsar.
  • Judges were given better training and pay (so they were less open to bribery)
  • The senate heard appeals and was the court of first instance for the most dangerous crimes.
  • Local courts with magistrates dealt with minor offences and could not impose a setence of more than one year's imprisonment. These magistrates were elected every three years by the Zemstva. They were to be independent from political control.
  • Volost courts were established to deal with 'peasants leaving serf dependence'. They dealt wityh minor offences and judges in these courts were peasants who had to be literate and without conviction. They were elected every three years by the peasants.
  • Volost courts could give reprimands, fines of upto 300 roubles and prison sentences of bwtween three months and a year.
  • Freedom of Press was extended to legal reporting, which was now be recorded verbatim in a government newspaper called the Russian Courier.

The system established was clearly much fairer and less corrupt than known previously and helped to establish the rule of law in Russia. Opening up the courts to the pulbic was particularly popular and cases sometimes attracted large numbers. Lawyers could become 'celebrities' and the career also gave articulate lawyers an opportunity to criticse the regime and the use of the jury system could undermine government control. In 1878, for example, Vera Zasulich was acquitted of terrorism. After this it was established theat political crimes and those by high ranking official were to be tried by special prodecures under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Revolutionaries were rountinely dealt with by the Third Section until 1880 and still faced arbitrary arrest and trial in special courts.

There were other limitations too. Trial by jury was never established in Poland, the estern provnices and the Caucuasus, while ecclesiastical and military courts were excluded from the reforms and the peasantry in the volost courts were…


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