Russians want to take magistrates back home

After 10 days scrutinising the British legal system, Vladimir Gukov, head of the international department of Russia's Supreme Court, was particularly taken with UK magistrates.

“Magistrates would be perfect for Russia” he said. “If 90 per cent of our cases were dealt with by officials who did not want to be paid, it would take a load off the professional judges. We're thinking about it very seriously.”

Gukov and 10 fellow judges will return to Russia with a wealth of knowledge about the UK legal system to help them prepare reforms for the Russian judicial system.

Their fact-finding mission has included meetings with Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham and Lord Woolf, Master of the Rolls, as well as visits to the Central Criminal Court, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and international law firm Baker & McKenzie.

“The problem is not finding ideas for reform but finding funding,” said Gukov. “Everything has to be seen in terms of money.”

This is the reason the magistrates system is so appealing to Gukov. Judges are generally very young in Russia – they are appointed after five years' practise as lawyers. They earn just $200 a month.

Low wages coupled with delays in the payment of court expenses “make judges ripe for bribery” said Gukov. “But we are getting wise to this. If a judge is caught accepting bribes he is struck off.”

He said trial by jury was inconceivable in the present economic climate. Juries would require new court rooms and equipment and the expense of taking 12 people out of work for the duration of the trial.

Because the role of the courts in communist Russia was oppressive judges have had problems gaining recognition as independent and respected members of the community.

Death threats and terrorism against Russian judges and courts are common. Gukov talked of a young judge he knew who was recently killed for fining a disabled man for selling fake goods illegally.

However, Gukov is confident that public opinion is changing. “The rule of law is gradually being established. People are increasingly going to the courts, which is proof they see the judicial system as a protector of their rights.”

This new-found independence and the rise of democracy means that cases are now coming before the courts which Russian judges have never experienced before. People are suing newspapers for defamation and appealing against unfair arrest.

“It is the beginning of a new career for judges”, said Gukov, who added: “The moment you have a democratic society you have to deal with a whole range of new problems. There are also a lot of opportunities for criminals during the transition from one political and legal system to another.”

The judges want to continue the association with the UK. They also plan to establish similar links with other countries. They have already visited Germany, the US, Canada, Hungary, Poland and China.

Gukov said: “We can't mechanically take things out of Britain and put them into Russia because each country has its own characteristics, but we can borrow and adapt ideas. We hope to create a successful legal system in Russia based on international experience.”