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Short Update: The impact of COVID-19 measures on Russian courts

FT Admin - June 2, 2020 - COVID-19 Updates, Remote Justice, Court closures, Access to a lawyer

On 11 May, the regime of “non-working days” came to an end in Russia. According to the letter of the Legal Department of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, the courts had to resume work without COVID-19’ restrictions from 12 May. In resuming the activities, the courts should take into consideration requirements of the Chief Medical Officer of Russia and restrictions imposed under the high alert regime in their region (subject of the Russian Federation). These recent developments did not improve the guarantees of the right to a fair trial that were already put in danger by the measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The courts adopted different decisions on whether to resume their work after the end of “non-working days” and on what conditions. For instance, in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg the courts continued to consider only urgent cases without allowing the public in the court hearings, while in Moscow oblast and Leningradskaya oblast the courts resumed consideration of all cases with certain precautions: the public is not allowed in the courts and all participants must use personal protective equipment.

Lawyers are concerned with the current situation in the court system. On the one hand, some lawyers fear that courts are not able to safeguard the health of their own workers as well as the participants of court proceedings. There are several examples demonstrating that public health precautions in courts are not effective: two courts closed again because the court workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

On the other hand, the opportunities of remote participation in court hearings are limited. The legal framework regarding remote hearing is still being drafted. On May 3, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation announced that it will be preparing a bill on the possibility of remote participation in court hearings (via web-conferencing). The bill does not apply to criminal cases, as the existing legal framework already allows for use of videoconferencing for certain types of hearings. Moreover, existing videoconferencing and web-conferencing facilities do not allow the public to participate in a court hearing. Video broadcasting of hearings conducted by the courts remains an exception.

Travel restrictions between regions are a further concern. A number of regions in Russia require a person coming from another region to self-isolate for two weeks. Such travel restrictions have led to a violation of the right to a lawyer, if the lawyer learns about the hearing date only several days prior. Lawyers have also failed to participate in investigative activities with defendants held in custody in another region because they cannot afford to spend 14 days in self-isolation in another region. Some lawyers have defended their professional rights in courts. Others have applied to the Ministry of Justice, which has already twice on 7 April  and on 28 May sent recommendations to the governors of the subjects of the Russian Federation requiring to ensure free movement of lawyers travelling for professional reasons if the region restricts freedom of movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, all the rules and restrictions are not clearly communicated to lawyers and the public. Lawyers complain that rules regarding visits to courts differ from court to court and are vague. Monitoring of the web sites of the courts in Leningrad region demonstrates that information about court’s work and conditions of admitting visitors is vague, incomplete and often outdated.

We publish information as it is reported to us. If you would like to make us aware of an inaccuracy or send us more information please email us at [email protected].

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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