29.05.23 Review

The repressive justice machine: jury trials are unable to influence the degradation of the Russian judiciary

In Russia, the courts play an auxiliary role within the system of law enforcement, and this explains the near absence of acquittals. However, the exceptions — situations in which the likelihood of an acquittal increases — only confirm the subordinate nature of the courts and the systemic legal inequalities. The likelihood of acquittal is much higher when those accused are security forces and officials, as well as in cases of private prosecution, where the courts do not have to demonstrate loyalty to law enforcement, and in verdicts handed down by juries. Following the 2018 judicial reform, the number of jury verdicts rose, as did the proportion of acquittals. But, in 2022, there were the first signs of revision to this reform. Moreover, jury panels hear no more than 0.1% of cases in Russia and more than 60% of their acquittals are overturned by the higher court. Law enforcers can always get the verdict they want. Therefore, the institution of the jury cannot systematically influence the nature of the judicial system and the legal consciousness of the country’s citizens.

In Russia, the court system fails completely in political cases where the evidence and the decisions are totally falsified for the benefit of the executive and law enforcement agencies. But even beyond the political sphere, the judicial system is a pyramid of injustice and inequality due to the subordinate role it plays to the system of power and law enforcement.

The result of this situation is the inherently repressive nature of the Russian courts: they return virtually no acquittals. While the law enforcement agencies are governed by a ‘stick’ system, whereby crime detection figures are imposed from above, the role of the courts is solely to confirm these figures. As a result, the acquittal rate in Russia is less than 1%. According to calculations for the past 15 years by the platform If You're Exact, the rate of acquittals peaked in 2011 at 0.81%, and then steadily declined to 0.15% in 2022. In other words, in 2022, Russian courts acquitted just one out of every 670 people. In 2022, 78% of cases ended in convictions, 20% were terminated on non-rehabilitative grounds, and 1% resulted in the use of coercive medical measures. Only 0.13% of cases were terminated on rehabilitative grounds, when all charges were dropped. In cases with this outcome, the defendant is entitled to compensation and an official apology from the state for unlawful prosecution. However, this number is even lower than the proportion of acquittals.

There are, however, three types of exceptions where the chance of an acquittal is much higher: 1) cases against security forces and officials, 2) private prosecutions and 3) jury trials, as noted by If You're Exact, an analytical project created by the Necessary Help Foundation. However, these different types of exception also confirm the subordinate nature of the judiciary and the legal inequalities that exist as a result. 

The ten legal articles with the highest proportion of acquittals are primarily those that are applicable to civil servants. They are 'friendly' to the executive, and the judiciary will show loyalty to them if requested to do so. The article 'Exceeding official authority under aggravating circumstances' had the highest acquittal rate last year — 3.72%. The defendant in cases of ‘Exceeding official powers’ was acquitted in 2.15% of cases. Articles such as 'Abuse of office', 'Misuse of power', 'Embezzlement by an organised group or on a particularly large scale' have acquittal rates above 1%. However, analysts note that the number of acquittals in cases against security services and officials has also begun to decline. Moreover, a new category of people to whom the judicial system is particularly loyal has emerged: those who have participated in combat action in Ukraine. They may be exempt from responsibility by a court decision and investigative actions against them can be terminated. This can also be done by a direct order from the executive power vertical.

The second type of case where there is a high proportion of acquittals are private prosecutions, when the victim can independently form the evidence base and act as a prosecutor in the process. Last year less than half of such cases ended in a verdict with punishment, because they are not prepared and accompanied by law enforcement officers, and so the courts are not obliged to demonstrate their loyalty. However, only three offences can be dealt with by private prosecution: inflicting minor injury without aggravating circumstances, slander without aggravating circumstances, and repeated battery. But year by year, private prosecutions are becoming less popular: in 2022 there were 15 times fewer such cases than in 2007. Moreover, in recent years, it has become increasingly common for a private prosecution to come to court not directly from the victim, but with an indictment drawn up by law enforcement officials. In this type of case, there are twice as many convictions and dozens of times fewer acquittals. The system seeks to reduce and possibly eliminate this gap in the repressive monopoly.

Third, the probability of acquittal is higher in jury trials. Juries acquit approximately 100-150 times more often than professional judges. The number of jury trials increased significantly after 1 June 2018, when Federal Law 190-FZ came into force. This expanded the use of jury trials with new, though not very common, compositions, extended its work to the level of district and garrison courts and reduced the number of jurors required.

According to calculations by the Institute of Law Enforcement Problems (ILP) at the European University in St Petersburg, which monitors the results of the 2018 judicial reform, the number of jury trials has quadrupled since the reform came into effect. In the first half of 2018, before the reform was introduced, the proportion of acquittals in jury trials in regional courts was only 11%t, while in the second half, after the new law came into force, it rose to 16%. However, after peaking in 2021, the rate of acquittals in both district and regional courts has decreased by four percentage points to 32% and 14%, respectively.

Number of jury trials in Russian district and regional courts, 2018-2022

However, verdicts of acquittal by juries are usually overturned on appeal. Jury verdicts remain the subject of constant opposition from law enforcers. Last year, 61% of verdicts of acquittals handed out by juries were overturned in the higher court, in 2021 — 71%, in 2020 — 62%, in 2019 — 54%. The percentage of acquittals reversed without jury participation is much lower — 35% in 2022.

However, despite the reduction in the number of acquittals in jury trials, their share still remains significantly higher than in trials conducted without juries. At the level of district courts without a jury panel, the proportion of acquittals last year was just 0.21%, and at the level of regional courts it stood at 0.66%. But the proportion of cases tried with jury participation (just over a thousand per year) is less than 0.1% of all cases brought before Russian courts, so this does not have much impact on the overall picture of repressive justice and does not significantly influence social practice. This is especially the case given that when law enforcement officials decide they need to overturn a jury verdict, they always get their way.