Russian lawyers are set to make major decisions at the fifth all-Russian convention of lawyers on April 26 in Moscow. Two key issues deal with liberalizing criminal law and promoting reforms on the legal services market.

Yevgeny Semenyako, President of the Russian Federal Chamber of Lawyers

Liberalizing criminal law

Lawmakers passed a federal law on amendments to the Russian Criminal Code to liberalize criminal penalties for minor crimes and crimes of medium gravity in early March. Arrests were annulled for 68 offenses as the low penalty threshold. Meanwhile, the financial penalty will be the primary sanction for 11 offenses. Correctional labor will be a possible sanction for 12 offenses. Arrest and correctional labor were abolished as the low penalty threshold for 118 offences.

Humanizing criminal law meets international legal standards and will lead to a reasonable balance between legally protecting society and protecting the rights of prosecuted individuals.

The need to liberalize criminal penalties is evident.

First, mitigating sanctions doesn’t revoke the punishment per se.

People who have committed a crime due to carelessness or a fatal contingency for the first time will not be released from penalty. However, they will be judged with mercy and not be sentenced to excessive punishments. Merciful treatment will encourage people to improve their behavior.

Second, substituting a custodial sanction for a financial penalty or correctional labor is expected to relieve prisons and consequently to cut public spending.

Tens of thousands of people will be allowed to keep working and raising their children.

Third, the amended code will allow courts to move away from their accusative stance during criminal proceedings. Judges will also be given more freedom and independence for reasonable law enforcement.

Legal assistance system reform

The Justice Ministry’s board completed the legal assistance reform concept development in late February. The reform concept was scheduled for extensive discussion.

The legal assistance reform is aimed at combining legal advisers and lawyers into a powerful professional corporation within a single legal environment under the lawyer status.

The professional corporation will provide people with affordable and quality legal assistance. It is also expected to become a competitive member of the international legal services market.

The legal assistance system’s key improvement means establishing a single standard for legal services.

The reform concept includes basic ideas and principles developed during long-term discussion.

Here are several of the most disputed points.

Lawyers’ community doesn’t mean reshuffling or monopolizing the legal services market. On the contrary, the community seeks equal and competitive conditions for Russian and foreign players on the legal services market.

The community is looking to cooperate with all the parties concerned to develop mechanisms for uniting legal advisers and lawyers working in Russia, which would secure their rights and interests as well as protect lawyers’ property and assets invested in their business.

The community understands that it will take a long time to execute the reforms since there is a need for a legal framework and institutional arrangements. Therefore, several major problems should immediately be addressed.

First, people who are not lawyers by profession, as well as those who are, but have a record of intentionally committing crimes, who have been deprived of their lawyer’s license for violating their duties, those suffering mental diseases, or who have been fired from law enforcement agencies, or public or non-public organizations for discrediting them, should not have the right to work as lawyers and legal advisers.

Second, measures should be taken to maintain the relations established as a result of lawyers’ involvement in criminal proceedings as defense counsels. Special attention must be paid to structuring inquiry bodies, preliminary investigation bodies and courts. This is important as defense counsels are responsible for defending the accused during criminal proceedings. Therefore, the most experienced and skilled lawyers should practice as barristers and defense counsels.

Third, establishing a self-governing legal organization doesn’t serve national interests as it will dissociate legal advisers and prevent uniform professional standards and ethical norms from being developed and applied.

The convention should apply to the government and the Justice Ministry for amending the law and adding provisions to regulate legal firms’ activities and allow them to develop into large legal companies. It is also necessary to advance the process of making the legal assistance system more professional.

The government will also further secure the independence of lawyers and strengthen lawyers’ status by setting legal grounds for lawyers’ inquiries, attorney-client privileges and lawyers’ involvement in social programs to protect the rights of the poor.

Greed and callousness management

It is necessary to analyze the situation in the lawyers’ community before making any attempts at reform.

The civilized development of the lawyers’ institute boosted lawyers’ role in protecting private interests and making legal services more accessible.
Tens of thousands of people now receive quality legal assistance and exercise their right to defense from criminal prosecution. Poor people receive free legal assistance as well.

All of this contributes to increasing the legal profession’s authority, prestige and confidence.

Therefore, it is crucial to take immediate tough measures against unfair lawyers and legal advisers who impose their services upon people, mislead them, act against their legitimate interests and even deceive their clients on occasion.

The low quality of legal assistance is due to these lawyers’ moral and professional degradation. Their sordid motives dominate public and corporate interests.

Such lawyers often avoid entering into legal service agreements withy their clients or receive fees without properly documenting them, which frequently serves as grounds for such lawyers detention and fraud charges.

It is unacceptable and reprehensible for lawyers to sign protocols of investigative activities conducted during their absence, to be absent at proceedings without a valid excuse, to be inactive at court hearings and to disrespect trial participants.

The lawyers’ community is indignant at so-called "pocket lawyers" who cooperate with law enforcement agencies. Their disgraceful behavior spurs rumors about corruption among lawyers and taints the entire lawyers’ society.

These incidents are not widespread so far. But they are unacceptable and must be removed from the lawyers’ community.

The lawyers’ community will celebrate a number of remarkable events in 2012. First, it is the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the federal law on lawyer’s activity and advocacy, which laid the legal groundwork for the modern legal profession in the country. It is also the 95th anniversary of women being allowed to work as lawyers. Finally, the lawyers’ community is set to mark the 170th anniversary of the birth of renowned Russian lawyer Fyodor Plevako.

Taking this into account, it is vital to honor and enhance the traditions of the legal profession in Russia and to protect the rights and the liberties of those individuals who put their lives in lawyers’ hands.