Practicing Public Interest Law in Russia Today

By
Ross Oermann

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled with adopting the rule of law and developing democratic political institutions. Anton Burkov, Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy, spoke on practicing public interest law in today's Russia at a 9 February 2011 seminar and how this relatively new specialty has promoted Russian legal reform.

Burkov began by describing the NGO where he currently is employed—Sutiajnik (literally, the "litigator")—and its involvement in public interest law. Sutiajnik was founded in 1994 by a group of idealistic young attorneys and law students interested in focusing on labor law and the rights of workers. This initial concentration ultimately evolved into broader practice of public interest law, with a specific emphasis on human rights. As Burkov explained, Sutiajnik promotes this agenda through its vigorous defense of individual rights in Russian courts and, when appropriate, before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. While Russia officially ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, Burkov observed that it was only during the early years of the 2000s that Russian lawyers regularly began to cite the Convention's legal rights and appeal directly to Strasbourg.

Burkov proceeded to provide examples of the types of public interest litigation pursued by Sutiajnik, in the process highlighting the growing interaction between Russian law and the European Convention. Burkov began by describing a 1999 case involving a labor activist who refused to meet with the local prosecutor after being summoned to the procuracy's office. The failure to appear resulted in an immediate administrative penalty that was not subject to appeal. The absence of a legal remedy prompted Sutiajnik to appeal to the Russian Constitutional Court, citing both a violation of Russian law and the European Convention's right to a fair trial. The Constitutional Court ultimately agreed with Sutiajnik, and Burkov noted that this decision led to genuine reform of administrative procedures.

Burkov next described a case involving the illegal detention of an Ekaterinburg human rights activist in a psychiatric hospital for 39 days. Sutiajnik originally pursued this case in Russian court, but when this strategy failed, Sutiazhnik appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which ultimately ruled that the activist's rights had been violated. Burkov added that a group of Russian judges were present in Strasbourg to attend the hearing of this case, and that their presence proved to be quite fortunate in that it gave a major "push" to the reform of Russia's practice on the procedure of detention in psychiatric hospitals.

Burkov referred to other types of public interest litigation that have resulted in fundamental legal reform in Russia. Most notably, the failure to enforce legal judgments led to major litigation in Strasbourg where the European Court ultimately stipulated that Russia take concrete steps to address the non-execution of decisions. This demand prompted the State Duma to pass the "Compensation Act of 2010", which allows Russian citizens to take the Minister of Finance to court to receive compensation for the failure to execute a valid court judgment.

Other important human rights litigation mentioned initiated by Sutiajnik included cases involving the rights of the disabled and prisoner's rights. Burkov added that as part of its broad mandate, Sutiajnik also regularly pursues disputes that do not necessarily fall under the rubric of human rights but nevertheless have broad public resonance. For example, Sutiajnik pursued litigation that demanded that the traffic police immediately replace a lost driver's license instead of requiring that person to re-take the entire driver's test. As a result, Burkov noted, a procedure that previously took upwards of three months can now be resolved in a day. Sutiajnik also has assisted NGOs that, for one reason or another, have been denied the right to register as an independent organization. Burkov emphasized that in all such cases, big and small, Sutiajnik "pushes the rule of law in Russia."

Burkov described how Sutiajnik used all local media outlets available to publicize its work and increase public awareness of human rights. Sutiajnik also publishes case materials and legal documents online for use by other activists and attorneys. Such a broad dissemination also serves more generally to educate the public at large about their legal rights. New challenges have emerged, however, in the practice of public interest law. Burkov described the initial enthusiasm and idealism that brought his generation to the practice of public interest law. However, over the past few years, it has become increasingly difficult to attract young lawyers to the field. But while lamenting the absence of young attorneys, Burkov observed that more experienced lawyers now were getting involved in public interest law, most notably through the handling of pro bono cases. According to Burkov, it is important for Russian law schools to teach the European Convention on Human Rights because under the Russian Constitution the Convention has equal status to other Russian laws.

Burkov ended his talk on a positive note, stating that the ratification and increasing enforcement of the European Convention represented an important step in the development of the rule of law in Russia. The European Convention on Human Rights, he concluded, has made the prospects for justly implementing public interest law more realistic, and therefore made legal practitioners like him more optimistic about the future.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

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