Judicial reform of Alexander II

Judicial reform of Alexander II

The judicial reform of Alexander II is generally considered one of the most successful and the most consistent (along with the military reform) of all the reforms of Alexander II. During the reform a completely new court system and a completely new order of legal proceedings were established. The main results were the introduction of a unified court system instead of a cumbersome set of Estate-of-the-realm courts, and fundamental changes in criminal trials. The latter included establishment of the principle of equality of the parties involved, introduction of public hearings, jury trial and the institution of a professional advocate which had not existed before in Russia. However, there were also low points and failures, as certain obsolete institutions were not covered by the reform. Besides, the reform was hindered by extrajudicial prosecution introduced on a widespread scale during the reign of successors of Alexander II - Alexander III and Nicholas II.

The judicial reforms started on November 20, 1864 when the tsar signed the decree which enforced four Regulations (The Establishment of Judicial Settlements, The Regulations of Civil Proceedings, The Regulations of Criminal Proceedings and The Regulations of Punishments imposed by Justices of the Peace).

Court system

The court system of Imperial Russia had remained intact since the reign of Catherine II. It included Estates-of-the-realm courts for different estates of the realm. Alexander II introduced a unified two-level system which consisted of "General judicial settlements" (Общие судебные установления) and "Local judicial settlements" (Местные судебные установления), where "settlement" ("установление") stands for "body" or "office". Courts were separated from the executive branch.

General judicial settlements

General judicial settlements included district courts, judicial chambers and the Senate.

Each district court covered several uyezds. Judges were nominated by the Minister of justice and appointed by the tsar. In order to become a judge a candidate had to meet certain requirements which included length of service, immaculate reputation and property qualification. There was no fixed tenure for district court judges. The law provided that different cases depending on the gravity of the offence and on the difficulty of investigation were heard by different board of judges. The board could include three judges, the judge and the jury or the judge and representatives of the estates. Introduction of representatives of the estates who enjoyed the same rights as judges was heavily criticised as incosistent with unification of court system.

One of the most important results of the reform was wide introduction of jury trial. The jury trial included three professional judges and twelve jurors. In order to be eligible for jury service a person above all had to possess real estate of certain value. Unlike in modern jury trials, jurors decided not only whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty, but they had the third choice: "Guilty, but not to be punished", since Alexander II believed that justice without morality is wrong. The exact sentence was rendered by professional judges. Unlike trials with estate of the realm representatives who could also seat in upper courts jury trials were held only on the level of district court. Though most liberals praised introduction of jury trials certain intellectuals criticised them. Two examples of such critics can be seen in Leo Tolstoy's "Resurrection" and Feodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov". In 1878 the revolutionary Vera Zasulich failed to assassinate St. Petersburg Governor-General Theodore Trepov, who had ordered a political prisoner to be flogged. Though it was obvious that the assassination attempt took place and it was Zasulich who performed it the jury acquitted her of all charges. The verdict of the jury was based not on the law but solely on their feeling of injustice committed by Trepov.

Judicial chambers were courts of appeal for cases heard in district courts. It also had original jurisdiction in certain high crimes (usually if offender was an official). Each judicial chamber covered several guberniyas. Judges were also appointed by the tsar.

The highest court was the Senate. It included the Department of Cassation in civil cases and Department of Cassation in criminal cases. They heard appeals brought on cases heard in lower courts. The Department of Cassation in criminal cases was also the court of first instance for the most dangerous crimes. In 1877 within the Senate the Disciplinary Commission for judges was established.

The Regulations also provided for extraordinary Supreme Criminal Court. It was convened if a high crime was committed by highest officials or if an assassination attempt at the tsar or his relative was made.

Local judicial settlements

The Regulations provided for establishment of local courts with justices of the peace which were supposed to deal with minor offences and could not impose sentence more than one year of imprisonment. Each justice of the peace was supposed to serve in a circuit one uyezd comprising several circuits. They were elected for three years by zemstvas. However, in many areas there was not enough candidates who would meet the requirements for election, in other areas local authorities hindered the process of election. In several Western regions justices of the peace eventually were appointed by the Minister of Justice. In 1889 the whole institution was abolished everywhere except for Moscow and St. Petersburg. The powers of justices of the peace were vested in local executive authorities. They were restored in 1912 but at that time the monarchy was already about to collapse.

Regulations Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence ("Положения о крестьянах выходящих из крепостной зависимости") provided for creation of "volost' courts". The volost' courts dealt with minor offences committed by the peasants. Judges in such courts were local peasants who had to be literate and not to have convictions. They were elected for three years by electors who were elected by the peasants themselves. Appeals on decisions rendered by volost' courts were lodged to "upper rural courts", which consisted of chairmen of local volost' courts. The sentence rendered by upper rural court had to be supervised either by the justice of the peace or (if none) by local authorities.


Court-martial existed separately from other courts. The system of courts-martial was listed in Court-martial Regulations 1867. According to it, minor crimes were dealt with in regiment court. The judges were officers appointed by the head of the regiment. In order to enforce the decision consent of the head of the regiment was required. Grave crimes and appeals were dealt with in District martial courts. The highest instance was the Supreme Court-martial. The members of the Supreme Court-martial were appointed by the tsar.

Improvement of the criminal trial

Before the reform parties in the criminal trial by no means enjoyed equal rights. The defendant did not even have legal counsel (legal assistance and legal representation were allowed in civil cases only). There was no distinction between trial in the court and investigation and trial conducted by police. The judicial reform instituted modern criminal trial based on the principle of equality of the parties. Defendant was allowed to have legal representation (see below). The defence was now able to search for and provide evidence to the court while the court itself ceased to perform investigative functions. Its only task was to decide which party presented more convincing evidence. Introduction of jury trial rapidly increased the amount of verdicts of "not guilty". The trial in all courts except for the Senate was made public.

Institution of the bar association

Prior to 1864 there was no bar association. There were scriveners ("стряпчии") who did not have to satisfy any requirements and had very limited powers. The aim of the bar (Russian: "Корпорация присяжных поверенных"; barrister - "присяжный поверенный") was to guarantee that each defendant would have access to qualified legal assistance. Besides legal representation one of the tasks of the bar was to give free legal advice to the poor. The bar was an independent corporation which had its own administration in each guberniya (Council of Barristers - "Совет присяжных поверенных") which dealt with various organizational matters, imposed various disciplinary penalties on its members (expulsion was not uncommon). In 1874 their powers were transferred to local courts and independence of the bar was cut down. The new Regulations enumerated the requirements for barristers. Besides, Councils of Barristers were allowed to refuse entrance into the Bar without stating a reason.


* "Гуценко К.Ф., Ковалев М.А. Правоохранительные органы. Учебник для юридических вузов и факультетов. Изд. 7-е, перераб. и доп. / Под ред. К.Ф. Гуценко. М.: ЗЕРЦАЛО-М, 2002. - 416 с."

ee also

*Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia
*Russian history, 1855-1892

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