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Introduction to Russia’s Legal System

The Constitution states that Russia shall be a democratic and federal state with a republican form of government based on the rule of law.  The people of Russia shall be the only source of power in the Russian Federation. The Constitution proclaims a broad array of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that are guaranteed by the state.  Generally, these rights conform to the international standards as established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the International Covenant on Human Rights of 1966.

The Federation consists of eighty-two constituent components.  Any matter, which is not defined by the Constitution as an issue of federal or joint concern, is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the constituent component of the federation. 

State power is exercised on the basis of its separation by the President of the Russian Federation, the bicameral Federal Assembly (legislature), the Government, and the courts.

The system of government is similar to the mixed presidential and parliamentary regime.  The President who is elected by general election for a term of four years is the Head of State, his powers are quite expansive.  He appoints and dismisses the Prime Minister and members of the Government, dismisses the Government and dissolves the legislature, and nominates federal judges, justices of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, Chairman of the central bank, and the Prosecutor General.  Being the head of the executive branch, the President may preside over meetings of the Government; however, unlike the American President, he is not considered to be the head of the Government.  In legislative area, presidential powers include the right of initiating, signing, promulgating, and vetoing legislation.  The legal status of Government corresponds to the Western cabinet structure. 

The legislature – the Federal Assembly (external link) – is a permanently working body and consists of two separate chambers, the State Duma and the Federation Council, which have different powers and responsibilities. The Federation Council consists of two representatives from each constituent component of the Russian Federation. This chamber is obligated to examine all bills passed by the State Duma on budgetary, tax, and other fiscal issues, as well as issues dealing with war and peace, and with treaty ratification.  The Federation Council’s jurisdiction includes the approval of border changes between the components, approval of presidential decrees on introduction of the state of emergency and martial law, usage of the Armed Forces beyond Russia’s territory, call for presidential elections, and removing the president from office by impeachment.  The State Duma is the lower chamber, and its main duty is to pass laws, which are then sent to the Federation Council for confirmation. The State Duma consists of 450 members elected by party lists through a proportional electoral system.

The judiciary consists of three independent parts: regionally based federal courts of general jurisdiction, courts of arbitration assigned to the resolution of economic disputes, and the Constitutional Court with the right of judicial review.  The institution of justices of peace was introduced for the resolution of small claims at the local level. 

Local courts are established in all administrative units of the Russian Federation and function as courts of first instance and courts of appeals for decisions of justices of peace.  These courts make initial decisions in the majority of all criminal and civil cases. Federal district courts build the second level of Russia’s judicial system.  Their territorial jurisdiction extends to the components of the federation where those courts have been formed.  They serve as trial courts in more serious crimes and civil matters, and as appellate courts reviewing local court’s judgments.  The Supreme Court is the highest judicial body for civil, administrative, criminal, and other cases within the jurisdiction of courts of general jurisdiction.  Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the Federation Council.  The Court has three divisions: civil, criminal, and military, which hear relevant cases.  Thirteen specially appointed justices of the Supreme Court comprise the Presidium of the Supreme Court, the highest judicial instance in Russia in regard to cases heard by way of supervision and for newly discovered circumstances.  The plenary session of the Supreme Court may issue explanations on questions pertaining to judicial practice, and it may exercise the Court’s right of legislative initiative by formulating the relevant proposals for their subsequent submission to the Parliament. 

Arbitration courts are a part of the federal judicial system, but separate from regular courts and is aimed at the resolution of commercial and economic disputes. They are organized at the level of constituent components of the Russian Federation, and, despite what the name suggets, their function is to adjudicate, not arbitrate, economic disputes between business entities, and to decide on complaints against organs of state and federal administration whose decisions may affect the conduct of business operations.  The internal structure and principles of the arbitration courts are similar to those of the courts of general jurisdiction. 

The nineteen-member Constitutional Court decides whether federal laws, presidential and governmental decrees and directives, and regional constitutions and laws comply with federal constitution.  The Constitutional Court also resolves jurisdictional disputes between federal and lower level organs of power and may be asked to interpret the federal Constitution.  Rulings of the Constitutional Court are binding and final, and do not need to be confirmed by other organs or officials.  Acts or their individual provisions, which have been deemed unconstitutional, become invalid

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Official Sources of Law

Historically, Russia belongs to the continental legal system, and a written law, which was passed under the established legislative procedure, is the main legal source.  About 10,000 laws, regulations, and other legal acts are passed in Russia annually.

1. Constitution

The Constitution is the supreme Russian law and major legislative instrument.  It establishes the principle of superiority of law in the system of legal sources.  The law cannot contradict the Constitution.  All other legal acts, such as decrees of the President, Governmental regulations, acts of Ministries and other federal executive agencies, as well as legislation passed by the constituent components of the Russian Federation cannot contradict laws.  All laws are passed exclusively by the Federal Assembly (legislature).  Delegation of the legislative power is prohibited.  The Constitution introduces several categories of legislative instruments.

2. Federal Constitutional Laws

Federal Constitutional Laws establish the group of most important legislative acts.  These laws are similar to the institution of organic laws.  They are passed in regards to the jurisdiction encompassed by the authority of the Russian Federation only.  Because of their significance, the Russian Constitution provides for the complicated procedure of their adoption.  The federal constitutional law is adopted if it has been approved by at least three-quarters of the total number of the Federation Council (upper chamber of the legislature) members and by at least two-thirds of the total number of the State Duma (lower chamber of the legislature) members.  The president of Russia cannot veto federal constitutional laws.  The list of federal constitutional laws is prescribed by the Constitution.  It includes laws on the state of emergency, the change of the status of a constituent component of the federation, on constitutional amendments, on government, on referendum, on the judiciary, on the Constitutional Court, and some other.  Presently, most of the required federal constitutional laws are in force.

3. Federal Laws

Federal laws constitute the second category of legal sources. They regulate issues included into executive authority of the Russian Federation and its components.  The Constitution protects priority and direct effect of federal laws throughout the territory of Russia.  In case of a conflict between federal law and another act issued in Russia, the law will prevail.  Meanwhile, the Constitution guarantees the priority of the act of a constituent component if such act regulates issues outside the Russian Federation’s scope of authority.  After being adopted by the Federal Assembly, a federal law is forwarded to the Russian Federation President for signing and publication.  The President has the right to reject a federal law and send it back to the Federal Assembly for the repeat consideration, but if a federal law is approved in its previous edition by the majority of both chambers members, it should be signed by the President.  Often, Russian laws are adopted in the form of a Code of Law.  A Code is a complete collection of rules in an entire subject area such as: civil law, criminal law, and labor law.  Although Codes are usually supplemented by numerous pieces of special legislation, Codes retain their preeminence as major sources of law in a given area. 

4. International Treaties

Universally acknowledged principles and standards of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation are a part of Russia’s legal system. Should an international treaty of the Russian Federation establish rules other than those established by a domestic law, the rules of the international treaty will prevail.

5. Executive Regulations

Decrees and directives of the Russian President establish a separate category of legal acts and do not belong to subordinate legislation.  Due to an absence of required laws, the President can pass decrees regarding all questions without any limits if a valid federal law does not regulate this issue, except of cases when the Constitution directly says that the question requires the adoption of a federal law. A large group of executive acts comprises documents issued by the federal government, ministries, state committees, committees, and other federal agencies.  All these binding documents are subordinated to laws and are graded lower than laws in legal hierarchy.  Usually, they are aimed at implementing higher level acts of law, and are largely devoted to industrial problems related to the economic development of the country.

6. Other Legal Acts

An additional group of delegate legislation is comprised by normative acts of federal executive authorities.  These acts are related to laws through Directives of the Government.  They develop, add, and concretize existing legal norms.  Although ministerial documents are acts of special jurisdiction and regulate activities of the subordinated persons and legal entities, sometime they can be of interdepartmental or even general significance.  There are different forms of such acts: regulations, orders and instructions, varying by its content and the procedure of adoption.  Also, both chambers of the Federal Assembly adopt resolutions within their jurisdiction, which are usually passed in the non-legislative sphere and regulate such individual matters as appointments, approvals, removals from office, calls for elections, and declarations of amnesty.

7. Judicial Decisions

Following the traditional civil law approach, judicial practice is restricted to applying and interpreting the law, and the precedent cannot serve as a legal source.  According to Russian legal doctrine, judges are supposed to use only written law contained in codes, statutes, or regulations in deciding a case; however, a decision to vacate a particular legal act proves to be a source of law, and the Constitutional Court indicated that its previous decisions shall be followed as stare decisis.  Even though attorneys use prior judicial decisions in their arguments, judges should not refer to prior cases in their decisions.  Court judgments in individual cases are not precedents for future decisions.

8. USSR legislation

Soviet laws and regulations are applicable when Russian domestic legislation lacks such laws and the Soviet law does not conflict with any existing Russian law.  Presently, Soviet law has the transitional function and exists until the Russian legislature adopts laws in those areas.

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Printed Sources

Russian laws enter into force within ten days of their first official publication.  The official publication is the printed version of the Russian official gazette Sobranie Zakonodatelstva Rossiiskoi Federatsii [Collection of Laws of the Russian Federation] published by the Yuridicheskaia Literatura publishing house, a division of the Executive Office of the President, Russian analogue to the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO).  Sobranie Zakonodatelstva is published weekly and includes about 100-200 documents in each issue.  Federal constitutional laws, federal laws, major international treaties, parliamentary resolutions, decrees of the President, government regulations, and rulings of the Constitutional Court are subject to publication in the Sobranie Zakonodatelstva.

Additionally, the publication of laws in the government-owned daily newspaper Rossiiskaia Gazeta [Russian Newspaper] is considered an official publication.  On average, the Rossiiskaia Gazeta publishes daily about three to ten legal acts adopted by the highest federal authorities and regulations passed by federal executive agencies.  Some days, the number of officially published documents may go as high as between fifteen to twenty, and on some days no legal acts are published.  Documents published in the newspaper include federal constitutional laws, federal laws and codes, decrees of the President of the Russian Federation, resolutions and acts of the Government of the Russian Federation, and regulations issued by the ministries and departments (orders, instructions, statutes, etc.).  Acts of the Federal Assembly (Parliament) of the Russian Federation, decisions of the Constitutional Court and other documents are published also, but less regularly, and some documents are published in the supplements to the newspaper.

Executive regulations and other legal acts issued by federal executive agencies are published in the Biulleten’ Normativnykh Aktov Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Bulletin of Normative Acts of the Russian Federation). A weekly publication, which includes all federal acts registered by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

Bilateral and multilateral treaties, conventions, and agreements signed by the Russian Federation and its highest officials are published together with federal laws on their ratification in the separate official publication Biulleten Mezhdunarodnykh Dogovorov (Bulletin of International Treaties) after these documents enter into force. The Bulletin is published monthly and is the only complete publication of official texts of international treaties and agreements that are in force.

The official publication of the legislative power is the Gosudarstvennaia Duma. Dnevnik Zasedanii (State Duma: Diary of the Meetings), analogous to the Congressional Record in the United States.  It presents concise information on every State Duma meeting, their agendas and questions that the deputies did not have enough time to sufficiently discuss, lists of speakers, and voting results.

Biulleten’ Verkhovnogo Suda Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Bulletin of the Russian Federation Supreme Court) is the official publication of the judicial branch of power.  It includes explanatory guidelines, review of lower court decisions, selective rulings of the Supreme Court on most publicized cases, and recent acts of law affecting the judiciary.  Official bulletins are published by two other highest courts in Russia.  Rulings and decisions of the Constitutional Court, including “special opinion” (dissent) of justices, are published in the Vestnik Konstitutsionnogo Suda Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Herald of the Russian Federation Constitutional Court), which is published bimonthly, and the official documents of the Russian Federation Highest Court of Arbitration (court for commercial disputes) are published in the monthly Vestnik Vysshego Arbitrazhnogo Suda Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Bulletin of the Russian Federation Highest Court of Arbitration).

The Accounting Chamber of the Russian Federation is a government organization accountable to the Duma. On the latter's instruction, it checks and verifies the correctness of spending budget funds by ministries, departments, and enterprises. The results of the Accounts Chamber's checks are published in its monthly bulletin Biulleten’ Schetnoi Palaty Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Bulletin of the Russian Federation Accounting Chamber).

Biulleten’ Tsentralnoi Izbiratelnoi Komissii Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Bulletin of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation) is the official publication of the main federal body in charge of elections, and publishes the results of various elections in the Russian Federation and documents related to these campaigns.

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Web Sources

The official Web site (external link) for the federal state authorities of the Russian Federation contains links to the home pages of all highest Russian authorities, including national and regional.  It provides access to the HTML version of the Constitution and to the text of laws regulating the use and status of national symbols – anthem, flag, and coat of arms. There are no materials translated into English, even though a link to the English version of this site is provided on its homepage.  When this portal was created in 2000, the most recently debated legal acts adopted by the Parliament or submitted for parliamentary consideration were published there.  Presently, this information is absent.

The Web site of the Russian Federal Assembly (legislature) is linked with the information channel (external link), which is a valuable source for those who are searching for information about the most recent federal laws and their status.  The Web site provides unrestricted access to the text of all federal laws adopted since 1997, proposed legislative bills, drafts adopted by the parliament’s chambers, and laws vetoed by the President.  Most of the bills are easily accessible, together with the procedural rules of the chambers, information about parliamentary hearings, a schedule of legislative work, and biographical information of the members of the Russian Parliament. Of special interest are searchable archives of parliamentary hearings and such Duma’s publications as Dumskii Vestnik and Ekonomika I Zhizn.  Scholars might be interested in commentaries to major Russian codes and laws published in Russian legal periodicals and compiled by the AKDI database.

The Web site of the Russian Federation President (external link) contains a lot of specific legal information as well as general information about the schedule of the Russian President’s activities and has the text of his most recent speeches and interviews. The English version of the Constitution (external link) and Russian constitutional history survey seem to be educational for a foreign scholar. From the legal researcher’s point of view, this Web site is a good resource in locating a document signed by the President of Russia.  The search engine is user friendly and allows one to track the President’s legislative activities during his term of office.  A unique feature of this Web site is its International Documents section, which provides access to rarely available on-line international treaties, conventions, and agreements concluded by the Russian Federation.  It appears that this Web site is the only Internet resource to access international acts of non-legal nature.  Declarations, statements, memorandums, and decisions of international organizations and intergovernmental bodies are available there.  Although the publication of documents on this Web site is not recognized as official, this is a good reference tool.

Legislation related to the Russian judiciary system can be found on the Web site of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation (external link).  This site also contains an English summary of Russian judicial history, basics of the court system, and the translation of the historic 2003 court’s ruling No. 5 (external link) on the application of international law and international treaties by Russian courts of general jurisdiction.  Explanatory guidelines, review of lower court decisions, selective rulings of the Supreme Court on most publicized cases, and recent acts of law affecting the judiciary can be found on the Web site. The Web site contains information on professional organizations of judges and lower courts.  Because the Bulletin of the Supreme Court is now published by the Yurizdat Publishing House, the link to the electronic version of the Bulletin has been removed from the Web site.  Bulletin’s summary is available from the Yurizdat (external link) Web site.  Special links connect this Web site with the Web sites of Russia’s other highest judicial bodies, the Constitutional Court (external link) (contains the list of all resolved cases and the texts of the rulings, including the translation of major judgments into English) and the Highest Court of Arbitration (external link).  The latter includes regularly updated rulings of the Court’s Presidium, review of cases provided by the Garant database as well as materials on the history of Russia’s arbitration courts, information on regional courts, and an archive of mass media publications about the court.  Some circuit and regional courts of arbitration have their own Web sites and make decisions issued by these courts publicly available.

All legal documents published in the Rossiiskaia Gazeta (official publication) are published simultaneously and stored on the Rossiiskaia Gazeta (external link) Web site.  The homepage contains a link entitled Documents of this Issue to full text versions of the legal acts published on a particular date.  Presently, direct links to more than 2,000 legal acts passed during the last two years can be found under the rubric Documents on the main web page.  These documents are divided by subject: politics, business, security, international law, society, culture, and sport.  Documents passed more than two years ago are in the archive, which comprises all legal acts published in the Rossiiskaia Gazeta since 1999, when the on-line version of the newspaper became available.  The archive is accessible from the Web site.  Additionally, the Web site has a calendar of when legal acts enter into force, which has links to the full-text versions of the acts entering into legal force on a particular day. All materials on the Web site and in the archive are available free of charge.  No registration is required to access these documents.  Despite the fact that the Rossiiskaia Gazeta is the official publisher of Russian laws, this official status is not extended to its electronic version. The official online version of all legal acts is published on the website of the national internet portal of legal information. The website provides access to full texts of all legal acts issued by federal authorities and allows viewing of historic official publications and separate bulletins for international treaties and Supreme Court rulings.  Some law-related analytics but not systematic information on legal and legislative activities of the constituent components of the Russian Federation can be found on the portal website. 

There are three major commercial sources of legal information in Russia today – Garant (external link), Konsul’tant Plus (external link),  and Kodeks (external link). The main feature of these legal information systems is the complexity of information, which varies among the providers.  All systems include databases comprising federal legislation adopted by the highest government authorities, but they differ in the number of included documents, which were issued by the agencies and quasi-government institutions - like the Central Bank or the Pension Foundation - that have the right to pass legislation.  The number of available documents ranges from more than two million (Konsul’tant Plus (external link)) to 1.5 million with four thousand documents added to the system on a weekly basis (Garant (external link)).  Because all systems use analogous translation services, the parts of the databases that provide English translation of Russian laws are similar and include primarily business-related legislation and international humanitarian law.  Most of the systems are run by commercial firms that specialize in providing legal, consulting, and information services. Specialization of these firms is reflected in the information provided.  It seems that Konsul’tant Plus pays more attention to the legislation on taxation, while Garant, for example, collects information on court decisions more than other databases.

The main concern of database users is the authenticity of legal texts.  This problem was solved when the Consultant Plus system started to publish documents in their exact graphic format displaying the scanned copy of the original document submitted for registration at the Ministry of Justice.  Major information systems and databases (Garant, Kodeks) have negotiated agreements with the Ministry of Justice and receive the copy of the control version of the original document from the Ministry and from other institutions that issue legal acts.  This system ensures the comprehensive character of information on the Internet servers and in the reference systems.  In addition to federal legislation, all information systems provide access to laws of the constituent components of the Russian Federation where the offices of the company are located.  Garant is focused on Moscow city legislation, while Kodeks (external link) contains more information about the laws of St. Petersburg.  Consultant Plus publishes weekly surveys of regional legislation, and Garant monitors legislative activities of regional authorities over the country.  Legal education is incorporated in legal information systems.  All three major legal information systems Garant, Consultant Plus, and Kodeks contain materials for law students and publish electronic law journals.

Daily and weekly monitoring and updates of current legislation are common to all information systems.  Staff attorneys prepare surveys about the regulation of particular fields of business and answer questions regarding the application of Russian procedural laws.  For instance, the Garant has special sites for lawyers, accountants, and students with recommendations tailored to each particular category of clients.  Those who visit the Garant site can be involved in the discussion on current Russian legal development.  The site allows its subscribers to participate in online conferences with leading Russian legislators, government officials, and lawyers.

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Last Updated: 04/29/2016