The speech on precedent / Публикации / Сайт Антона Иванова

The speech on precedent

Гражданский процесс

Russian Law — Theory and Practice, 2012, № 2, p. 27 — p. 36

The speech at the Senate Readings at the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, Saint Petersburg, Russia, March 19, 2010

A.A. Ivanov

Chairman of the Supreme Commercial Court of the Russian Federation,

Moscow, Russia

1. Introduction

I am very pleased to speak in the former residence of the Governing Senate of the Russian Empire — the building which was constructed to accommodate the supreme judicial authority of Russia and where the Constitutional Court of the Rus­sian Federation is working now. Curiously enough, this building has direct relevance to the subject of my speech — precedent.

In the late XIX — early XX centuries, the Civil Cassational Department of the Governing Senate began the practice of formulating precedents in connection with the same questions that are the subject of current discussions among civil law­yers — namely, vindicatory and negatory actions, acquisitive prescription, liability without fault, etc. The results of that highly valuable experience were published, and anyone may study this practice. Unfortunately, our courts cannot base their deci­sions on that experience: all the courts of the Russian Empire were eliminated after the October takeover in 1917, and their decisions were abolished. But we have to live in the present, not in the past.

2. The conditional character of the term precedent

Recently there has been a lot of talk that decisions of the Russian courts are acquiring precedential character, that we are creating precedents regulating a wide range of social relations. In my opinion, this is becoming a label that some are using to condemn a particular phenomenon, and others are using the label to justify the phenomenon, depending on how legal scholars define the role of judicial acts in the context of their impact on social relations. And the question what to call them — precedent or non-precedent — is not that important.

3. Two ways of impact of judicial decisions on legal relationships

We should distinguish two major ways of impact of judicial decisions on the social relations existing in our society. The first one is that judicial acts affect only the relationship which they were intended to regulate. Judicial acts in such a narrow sense are individual (non-normative) legal acts. The continental legal approach is consistent with that doctrine to a great extent. But we should make a reservation here because highest courts of many countries of the continental legal family are very close to creating precedents. Compare, for example, the courts of Austria and Finland the activities of which I happened to see. The Supreme Court of Austria hears cases, but the Supreme Court of Finland focuses on creating precedents.

The second way of the impact of judicial acts on social relations presupposes a broader and more varied influence than giving a simple solution to a particular case. This impact also concerns the social relations that have never been the subject of legal proceedings and will probably never be the subject of such proceedings. This approach is more consistent with the Anglo-Saxon legal system, but not only with that system because the spread of the precedent law system is much wider, affecting many civil law countries.

4. Precedent and a rule of law

In the precedent system, judicial acts «outgrow» the level of a particular legal relationship, begin to get applied repeatedly and sometimes even become a stan­dard of a rule of law. However, the idea that a judicial precedent is a rule of law similar to a statute is hardly true. To begin with, a court is obliged to apply statutory rules of law, and if the court does not do that consciously, this court passes an illegal judicial act. The mission of the court is to apply a rule of law to a particular problem which does not always fit in the «procrustean bed» of the rule. In such a case, the court extends the application of the rule to a similar problem.

There is a different situation with application of precedents, i.e., decisions of highest courts on cases under their consideration. These decisions are made in rela­tion to a particular situation, and if the question under consideration is different from the situation in a particular precedent, the latter is not subject to broad inter­pretation. Only the court that is empowered to create precedents has the right to expand the scope of these precedents. However, when we speak about abstract legal views of courts, their differences from rules of law are rather ephemeral.

5. The place of the Russian judicial system

If we look at our judicial system from the point of view of «precedent-non-prec­edent» dichotomy., we will see that this system lies somewhere in the middle, and it has been there for a long time. Since the moment when our highest courts got the right to issue Plenums' Rulings on the interpretation of laws, they have switched from the classical continental approach, under which a judicial act affects only the relationship that has been subject to the analysis of the court, to a broader impact of the act on social relations.

Of course, this decision was unusual for a continental legal system. When we talk to our colleagues in West Europe, they are always surprised to find out that our highest courts' Plenums may pass binding rulings on construction of laws. To many of them it means that we indirectly adopt the Anglo-Saxon approach to formulating legal views. Moreover, the normative character of the Plenums' Rulings of the high­est courts is even higher than that of precedents because precedents only work in courts of law, but the Rulings of the Plenums work far beyond the courts.

The Russian judicial system went further when the Constitutional Court was established and granted the right to give binding interpretation of the RF Constitu­tion and to find unconstitutional the rules of law that do not comply with the Con­stitution.

6. The national judicial filter

The Constitutional Court is the only one of its kind, and it considers only a small number of cases. Other courts form two systems through which a lot of cases go. Our society has a high level of proneness to conflict (we rank among the first in the world — about 20 million cases per year for 141 million people, i.e., one case per seven people), routine captures more and more space. Creating precedents does not seem timely. Meanwhile, in the Anglo-Saxon legal system, the judges' workload is lower, which gives them an opportunity to prepare huge judicial acts that hone legal views.

After the normative character of the rulings of highest courts' Plenums was rec­ognized, and there is one step left to the system of case law. And this step, in my opinion, is made when we come to the idea of selecting judicial decisions to be reviewed by Supreme Courts. Here comes a radical change which allows saying that our system has transformed into a system of case law.

What is the purpose of selecting cases and national filters that are established so that the highest courts can decide only the most important cases? Of course, ini­tially, as always in a judicial system, the establishment of filters played the role of simple tools to facilitate the work of courts. The Supreme Court is overloaded with a number of small cases, and the Court decides to hear only the most important cases.

But then this decision led to some serious legal and organizational consequenc­es. What is the point in selecting cases? They are selected to formulate legal views relating not only to the cases that are most important to society, but also to other similar cases. Otherwise the principle of legal certainty is violated, and serious problems with the right to judicial protection may arise. Why is a court decision in a seemingly unimportant and uninteresting case not reversed by the highest court, while another decision is reversed?

7. The effect of a national filter on the authority of legal views of courts of law

Tire purpose of the filter is to form legal views which will affect all the other rela­tionships. First, of course, those that get into the orbit of court proceedings, and in the future — those that may never get there, especially in the sphere of private law, since in this sense, private law is more flexible. The parties simply will not enter into such a contract or will not enter into a civil legal relationship in respect to which there exist unfavorable legal views, as opposed to public law, where entering into a particular kind of legal relationships is often rigidly predetermined, where people will have to continue to engage in these relationships because they have no choice.

Once the national supreme court level filter for the selection of judicial decisions is established, regardless of its purposes, the authority of legal views of courts increases immediately, and they begin to influence future judicial decisions, and then — those relationships which may never be reviewed by the courts. And the higher the authority of legal views of a court, the stronger its influence on social relations. We should not forget about the focus of the highest court and its judg­es on creating precedents because organizational arrangements alone are not enough to do that.

8. The national filter and uniformity of court practice

The existence of a national filter for selection of judicial decisions requires a cer­tain organizational focus of the activities of the highest court. All its activities should focus on creating uniform and consistent legal views, or, as it is stated in the RF Code of Arbitration Procedure, on maintaining the unity of judicial practice. This is not just a slogan, but a vital necessity. After all, if there are different legal views in similar cases, this decreases the authority of the highest court, reduces the signifi­cance of its acts, and violates the principle of legal certainty.

But if in the highest court there is no single body developing legal views, incon­sistency in the judicial practice is inevitable. Judges are human, humans are fallible, and the independent status of judges only increases this risk because they can afford not to look back on their colleagues' opinion. Therefore, in terms of organiza­tion, the highest court, applying the national filter, should ensure independent selec­tion of cases, on the one hand, and the resolution of already selected cases by a single body composed of judges — the Senate, the Presidium, a chamber, etc. — on the other.

In this regard, I would like to draw attention to the existence of two bodies (chambers) within the Russian Constitutional Court that work out legal views, which, however, is partly compensated by the possibility to hear cases by the entire court (the Plenum).

9. The Differences In Models Within The Russian Judicial System

If we look at our judicial system from the perspective of the filter and its role in creating precedents, we can find out that one of our courts — the RF Supreme Court — is, in fact, working on the principles of the same continental model with the addition of the Plenums' Rulings, which themselves constitute a departure from the continental model. The court combines all instances — the first instance, cassa­tion, and supervision, with the supervision having a multistage character. But the main thing is that this court, in my opinion, is not intended to create precedents although its organizational structure makes their creation possible.

And there are two other highest courts — the Constitutional Court and Supreme Commercial Court — which have established the filter and now select the most important cases, which volens nolens pushes them to create precedents. This pro­cess is going by itself, regardless of their wishes. Here you cannot accuse anyone of the desire to make precedent a source of law. The courts have simply chosen a mod­el for their work, and such a model inevitably results in the precedent-oriented character of their legal views.

10. Advantages Of The Precedent-Based System

The final transition to the system of judicial precedent is movement in the right direction because in such a system, there are a lot of important advantages.

First, it is the stability of legal views in their gradual evolution, the absence of sudden revolutionary changes, which is especially important to private law rela­tionships (the idea of «the stability of civil circulation»), consistent development of the law, compliance with the internal logic of this development, and finally, a clear, almost photographic display of problems of practice, an adequate response to the problems that have arisen in the field of application of law.

Second, the precedent approach enables the judiciary to take a proper place in the system of separation of powers that exists in a democratic society. This is espe­cially true in our situation where there is a certain bias towards the executive power. The precedent system, in the conditions of ensuring the irremovability of judges and the stability of courts, strengthens the positions of the judiciary.

Third, the precedent-based system can significantly reduce the impact of vari­ous external factors — the administrative pressure, corruption, etc. — on judges. Rus­sia is a huge country, and at times it is very difficult to evaluate whether a decision has been made upon the judge's inner conviction or under the influence of external fac­tors mentioned above. But it is always possible to determine whether a decision which is being evaluated is consistent with the precedent that has already been formulated.

As to the forming of precedents by highest courts, the influence of external fac­tors on them is minimized. Moreover, additional measures are possible which exclude such an influence completely. In respect to local courts, doing such things is more difficult.

That is why there are reasons to strengthen the approach that has been develop­ing in our system during the last 20 years to give the force of precedents to judicial acts.

11. Disadvantages Of The Precedent System

The reasons to negate precedents are usually divided into two categories.

First of all, there are subjective reasons. Those who consider them usually say, «Who is entrusted with formulating legal views, what kind of judges are they?» In other words, the level of professional skills of members of the judiciary brings us to the conclusion that they cannot be entrusted with such an important function as formulating legal views. I have heard such words repeatedly. However, the quality of the judiciary is, first, a changeable thing and, second, it is often a matter of taste. Such words are usually said by people who lose cases in courts from time to time.

But it is impossible to deny the existence of objective reasons for the negative attitude to precedents. There are several reasons of this kind.

They include certain «secretiveness» in creating precedents. I mean the fact that laws are adopted by the parliament formed by the will of the nation, but, as a rule, judges are appointed by the president (the executive branch) or by the parliament (the legislative branch), i.e., indirectly in relation to the will of the nation. Life is changeable, political trends are changing as well, the will of the nation changes in essence, but judges always keep their jobs creating precedents. Many people point out such a disadvantage of the precedent system.

As we can see, there are certain grounds to criticize the precedent system. But there are strong objections to this criticism. Modern legislation has reached a very high abstract level. My words may seem too harsh, but the Russian deputies in leg­islative bodies have difficulty formulating abstract legal views. They can find simple solutions and take these decisions fast. But when it comes to interpreting funda­mental provisions, creating conceptually new legal views based on the interpreta­tion of the previous legal views and principles, precedent is more convenient and useful here than the adoption of laws by the parliament.

Many people understand what I mean if they know the work of deputies who are prone to instantaneous impulses and often want to solve simple legal problems, ignoring serious and fundamental legal principles. Besides, in such a large country as Russia, the direct will of the nation during parliamentary elections is susceptible to various outside influences (by means of parties' mechanisms, influence of mass media and promotional events), and from this point of view, deputies of the parlia­ment are as far from the nation as judges are.

Moreover, some representatives of liberal movements maintain that the prece­dent system limits the independence of each particular judge in considering a case. Indeed, precedents created by the highest court bind lower courts. But these prec­edents have been created on the basis of the analysis of a great number of similar cases, of the court practice on a national scale. The selection of judges to the highest court, specific guarantees of their independence, the organizational mechanism of the highest court's activity (for instance, the creation of precedents by a body con­sisting of a significant number of judges), uniformity of its practice bring us to the conclusion that being bound by a precedent is not a bad thing. The principle of legal certainty has a higher value than the independence of judges. Otherwise, we can come to the absurd conclusion that a judge does not have to follow the law if this conflicts with his/her inner convictions. Besides, a judge of a lower court can always decide that the case under consideration does not fall within the precedent created by the highest court…

The disadvantages of the precedent system that have been mentioned can be compensated in the conditions of any country, including Russia. In any case, there are no any serious theoretical objections against the implementation of the system of precedent law in Russia, as the advantages of precedents far exceed their disad­vantages.

12. The Main Directions Of The Development Of The Precedent Law

In conclusion, I would like to focus briefly on the main directions of the develop­ment of the precedent law in Russia.

Tire first direction is publishing judicial acts in the Internet, which is one of the major measures to raise the transparency of the court system. We have been doing it for over two years, and now in the Internet there are 12 mln documents on more than 2 mln 700 thousand cases (1 mln of final decisions). Anyone can analyze these documents, though they are most useful to those whose cases have not been heard by a court of law yet. Now we can see the rapid growth of applications with refer­ences to court decisions published in the Internet and confirming a particular posi­tion.

What is important for the precedent law is not the fact of publication, but a care­ful analysis of judicial acts to find out what legal views they contain. Therefore, there has to be a deeper analysis of the total volume of existing court decisions in order to find similar decisions among them. The court system must work out and implement the organizational mechanisms that enable to analyse the published court practice and react efficiently to particular deviations.

Tire second direction is explanations by the highest court of the refusals to review court decisions. With the national filter helping to select court decisions for review,

it is necessary to explain why one decision has been selected for the review and another decision has been left outside the sphere of the highest court's influence. I mean motivated refusal decisions. The Constitutional Court of RF was the first to provide such explanations

I am not speaking about whether refusal decisions can contain legal views intended to be repeatedly applied But the very fact of publication of refusal deci­sions and their explanation definitely increases the influence of highest courts on forming judicial practice because an independent branch of such practice is formed. Along with the judicial acts of highest courts which review acts of lower courts, there are also refusal decisions containing explanation why these decisions are not reviewed. If the refusal decisions are published, they begin to influence application of law.

The third direction is expanding procedural opportunities to apply the devel­oped legal views while reviewing other cases. I mean the review of cases in the light of new circumstances. I mean new, and not newly discovered circumstances, because this term is contained in the draft law on amendments to the Arbitration Procedure Code, which we initiated on the basis of the well-known Ruling of the Constitu­tional Court of the Russian Federation of January 21, 2010, No. 1-P. This decision has been widely discussed in the media and the scientific community in Russia. I am not going to analyze it in details.

I will only say that this Ruling concerned the review of cases pending in the Supreme Commercial Court of the Russian Federation while the Court has formu­lated a new legal view. If a legal view of the Supreme Commercial Court of the RF has already existed at the time of the contested judicial act, then, on the basis of Ruling No. 14 of the Plenum of the Supreme Commercial Court on the review of cases in the light of newly discovered evidence, the mechanism contained in the Ruling can not be applied. However, the Constitutional Court in its ruling has gone further and formed a unified approach to the review of cases, regardless of whether they have been accepted for review by the Supreme Commercial Court of the Russian Federation or not. And now we have to decide whether it is possible to send a judicial act for review in the light of the new (newly discovered) circumstances if the Supreme Commercial Court had already developed its legal views by the time the judicial act was passed.

The fourth direction is the implementation of the so-called pre-judicial request. We have prepared a draft law that would enable lower courts to suspend the pro­ceedings when a problem requiring the interpretation of the highest court arises. This opportunity exists within the constitutional proceedings. In this sense, we are not pioneers. But we suggest applying this model within a single judicial system.

The introduction of prejudicial request is based on purely practical consider­ations. For example, we have already noted that our tax legislation is said to have been changed too often and not very efficiently, so every change results in thou­sands of cases in which there is a dispute about the vague wording of the Tax Code. What should we do? Shall we wait for these thousands of cases solved in different ways to go through all instances and reach our Court? Just imagine how massive the violation of rights of persons involved in the cases can be if one of the possible legal views is adopted. It would be reasonable to stop this flow at an early stage. For the sake of this idea, we are creating a model of pre-judicial request.

When a judge sees that there is a large-scale problem that requires a common understanding across the country, he or she may appeal to the highest court for that court to consider the question of interpretation and to formulate a legal view. Tire expediency of the proposed solution is clearly seen in tax-related cases because, unfortunately, unlike many other countries, there is only one Tax Code in Russia and no instructions for its application. On the contrary, in other countries such instructions exceed twenty or thirty times the volume of tax codes. There is much more clarity of regulation there than in our country — and similar cases are not considered on a large scale because one judicial decision concerning a particular provision in the instructions is ample for our needs.

Prejudicial request is our response to numerous tax cases, cases in the social sphere, the administrative cases of certain categories. Within the framework of civ­il law, I believe, such a request would have a smaller value. But the problem with initiating a great number of lawsuits resolved in different ways is not the only reason for the introduction of prejudicial request. No less important is this request for building a proper relationship among court instances.

We have worked hard to destroy the connection between a judge and a higher judge who reviews his or her cases. For this purpose, we have created a system of appellate courts which makes it unclear who gets to hear a case resolved by the first instance, so that nobody in a higher court will be able to dictate his or her position to the lower court. We have deliberately destroyed this connection. Creation of appellate courts was aimed at ensuring a large variability for the parties to a case to enable them to achieve a greater effect when nobody knows what position in rela­tion to this case a higher court will take.

Prejudicial request gives more freedom to judges and makes them less depen­dent on higher courts. Every judge gets the right to choose whether to solve the case by himself/herself or to send a request to the highest court.

13. Conclusion

We need to move on to ensure that all the highest courts proceed from the com­mon principles of influence of their legal views on social relations, that is, [they] adhere to the idea of precedent law. The system should be organized in such a way that the two highest courts focus on creating precedents, and the third one is indif­ferent to this issue. But haste in implementing the proposed ideas is unacceptable since non est civitas judicii causa sed omne judicium hominis causa constitutum est. Thank you for your attention.

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