Judicial reform of Alexander II
The judicial reform of Alexander II
Alexander II of Russia
Alexander II , also known as Alexander the Liberator was the Emperor of the Russian Empire from 3 March 1855 until his assassination in 1881...

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
Judicial system of the Russian Empire
The judicial system of the Russian Empire was established as part of the system of government reforms of Peter the Great.-Judicial system after 1864:...

 instead of a cumbersome set of Estate-of-the-realm
Estates of the realm
The Estates of the realm were the broad social orders of the hierarchically conceived society, recognized in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Christian Europe; they are sometimes distinguished as the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners, and are often referred to by...

 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
Extrajudicial punishment
Extrajudicial punishment is punishment by the state or some other official authority without the permission of a court or legal authority. The existence of extrajudicial punishment is considered proof that some governments will break their own legal code if deemed necessary.-Nature:Extrajudicial...

 introduced on a widespread scale during the reign of successors of Alexander II - Alexander III
Alexander III of Russia
Alexander Alexandrovich Romanov , historically remembered as Alexander III or Alexander the Peacemaker reigned as Emperor of Russia from until his death on .-Disposition:...

 and Nicholas II
Nicholas II of Russia
Nicholas II was the last Emperor of Russia, Grand Prince of Finland, and titular King of Poland. His official short title was Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias and he is known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church.Nicholas II ruled from 1894 until...


The judicial reforms started on 20 November 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
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 had remained intact since the reign of Catherine II
Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great , Empress of Russia, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg...

. 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 uyezd
Uyezd or uezd was an administrative subdivision of Rus', Muscovy, Russian Empire, and the early Russian SFSR which was in use from the 13th century. Uyezds for most of the history in Russia were a secondary-level of administrative division...

s. Judges were nominated by the Minister of Justice and appointed by the tsar
Tsar is a title used to designate certain European Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers. As a system of government in the Tsardom of Russia and Russian Empire, it is known as Tsarist autocracy, or Tsarism...

. 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 inconsistent with unification of court system.

One of the most important results of the reform was wide introduction of jury trial
Jury trial
A jury trial is a legal proceeding in which a jury either makes a decision or makes findings of fact which are then applied by a judge...

. 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
Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics; justice is the act of being just and/or fair.-Concept of justice:...

 without morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 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
Leo Tolstoy
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a Russian writer who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. His two most famous works, the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are acknowledged as two of the greatest novels of all time and a pinnacle of realist...

's Resurrection
Resurrection (novel)
Resurrection , first published in 1899, was the last novel written by Leo Tolstoy. The book is the last of his major long fiction works published in his lifetime . Tolstoy intended the novel as an exposition of injustice of man-made laws and the hypocrisy of institutionalized church...

and Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky was a Russian writer of novels, short stories and essays. He is best known for his novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov....

's The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov is the final novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky spent nearly two years writing The Brothers Karamazov, which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880...

. In 1878 the revolutionary Vera Zasulich
Vera Zasulich
Vera Ivanovna Zasulich was a Russian Marxist writer and revolutionary.-Radical beginnings:Zasulich was born in Mikhaylovka, Russia, one of four daughters of an impoverished minor noble. When she was 3, her father died and her mother sent her to live with her wealthier relatives, the Mikulich...

 failed to assassinate St. Petersburg
Saint Petersburg Governorate
Saint Petersburg Governorate , or Government of Saint Petersburg, was an administrative division of the Russian Empire, which existed in 1708–1927....

A Governor-General, is a vice-regal person of a monarch in an independent realm or a major colonial circonscription. Depending on the political arrangement of the territory, a Governor General can be a governor of high rank, or a principal governor ranking above "ordinary" governors.- Current uses...

 Theodore Trepov
Fyodor Trepov
Fedor Fedorovich Trepov Senior was a Russian government official.Feodor Trepov began his military career in 1831 by participating in the suppression of the November Uprising in Poland in 1830–1831. He then commanded a cavalry regiment of gendarmes in Kiev...

, 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
Uyezd or uezd was an administrative subdivision of Rus', Muscovy, Russian Empire, and the early Russian SFSR which was in use from the 13th century. Uyezds for most of the history in Russia were a secondary-level of administrative division...

 comprising several circuits. They were elected for three years by zemstvas
Zemstvo was a form of local government that was instituted during the great liberal reforms performed in Imperial Russia by Alexander II of Russia. The idea of the zemstvo was elaborated by Nikolay Milyutin, and the first zemstvo laws were put into effect in 1864...

. 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'
Volost was a traditional administrative subdivision in Eastern Europe.In earlier East Slavic history, volost was a name for the territory ruled by the knyaz, a principality; either as an absolute ruler or with varying degree of autonomy from the Velikiy Knyaz...

. 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
Bar association
A bar association is a professional body of lawyers. Some bar associations are responsible for the regulation of the legal profession in their jurisdiction; others are professional organizations dedicated to serving their members; in many cases, they are both...

. There were scrivener
A scrivener was traditionally a person who could read and write. This usually indicated secretarial and administrative duties such as dictation and keeping business, judicial, and history records for kings, nobles, temples, and cities...

s (стряпчии) who did not have to satisfy any requirements and had very limited powers. The aim of the bar ' onMouseout='HidePop("88813")' href="/topics/Barrister">barrister
A barrister is a member of one of the two classes of lawyer found in many common law jurisdictions with split legal professions. Barristers specialise in courtroom advocacy, drafting legal pleadings and giving expert legal opinions...

- 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.
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