Russian Judicial System

The Judicial System of the Russian federation

General overview

The present Russian judicial system follows the State’s administrative structure and reflects the complex make-up of the largest country in the world. After 1991 Russia was re-constituted as a federation with 89 subjects. Today, after the amalgamation of certain administrative regions, the Russian Federation is still composed of over eighty subjects (regions, republics and two great cities). They are represented in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, which is composed since 2002 of both indirectly elected and appointed members.

Russia has a considerable population and its citizens are ethnically diverse as well as being widely dispersed. Most of the federation’s constituent subjects are Regions (oblast or krai in Russian) with a predominantly Russian population; the two major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg are also subjects. Certain concentrations of other ethnic groups and nationalities also constitute subjects of the federation, having inherited from the USSR a formally enhanced regional status as a Republic (e.g. Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Buryatia, Sakha-Yakutia, Dagestan and Chechnya). There are smaller “autonomous” entities within some of the predominantly Russian Regions, e.g. the vast Yamalo-Nenets autonomous district within the enormous Krasnoyarsk Region.


1. Courts at the federal level

A chart displaying the ranking and links between these different courts is to be found at the end of this document.

1.1      The Constitutional Court

This is the highest judicial body in the Russian Federation. It is made up of 19 judges, proposed by the President of the Russian Federation (Article 127 of the Constitution) and approved by the Federation Council. Since June 2008 the Constitutional Court has been located in St Petersburg.

The Constitutional Court has jurisdiction to interpret the RF Constitution; to decide whether a federal law is consistent with the country’s Constitution; and to adjudicate whether or not laws and regulations passed by the Republics and Regions of the Russian Federation are consistent with the RF Constitution.

Only a limited circle of state bodies have the right to approach the Court and seek its ruling on the interpretation of the RF Constitution. Private citizens may only challenge Regional or Federal normative acts before the Constitutional Court if they can establish admissibility; in fact there are quite a number of such cases.

Courts of General Jurisdiction

1.2      The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation

This is the supreme judicial body for all courts of general jurisdiction on civil, criminal and administrative matters. As of today the Supreme Court consists of 123 judges. Like the Constitutional Court, judges for the Supreme Court are proposed by the President of the Russian Federation (Article 127 of the Constitution) and approved by the upper house of the legislature, the Federation Council. The Supreme Court is located in Moscow.

It has jurisdiction as a court of cassation, i.e. it is the highest court of appeal in the land.  It is a court of extraordinary instance (nadzor — supervisory review) from the courts of the subjects of the Russian Federation, e.g. the Tatarstan Supreme Court or the Chita Region (oblast) Court, and from the tier of district courts below that level. Its own sphere of jurisdiction covers conflicts between the acts and decrees passed by RF government bodies (ministries, departments etc) and federal legislation; it also hears the most serious criminal cases as court of first instance.

The Plenum of the Supreme Court can issue regulations (postanovleniya). Regulations are a unique element of the machinery for the implementation of domestic law in the Russian legal system. Enacted by the Plenum, they are “explanations on issues of judicial practice”, based on the overview and generalization of the jurisprudence of the lower courts and Supreme (or highest) Courts of subjects of the Federation. Regulations are abstract opinions (not decisions in concrete disputes) but legally binding on all lower courts and they summarize the judicial practice of lower courts and explain how a particular provision of the law shall be applied. These regulations are employed to ensure the consistent application of Russian law by explaining how the law shall be interpreted. Regulations have their legal basis in Article 126 of the RF Constitution.

1.2.1   Courts of the subjects of the Russian Federation

These include the Supreme Courts of the Republics, the highest Courts of each Region, the Moscow and Saint-Petersburg City Courts, and the courts of autonomous districts. Courts of the subjects of the Russian Federation serve as courts of cassation and extraordinary appeal (nadzor — supervisory review) from their subordinate district courts. Their original jurisdiction constitutes challenges to normative laws and regulations of the regional authorities, and adoption of regulations.

1.2.2   There are district courts located in the country’s smaller towns and rural administrative areas including groups of villages; major cities have several such courts. District courts are the basis of the system of courts of general jurisdiction, with jurisdiction over the overwhelming majority of civil and criminal cases, unless otherwise provided by law (default jurisdiction). As courts of appeal, district courts decide appeals from justices of the peace.

1.2.3   Justices of the peace form an integral part of the system of courts of general jurisdiction, although they are considered to be regional judges. Justices of the peace are professional judges, with the same status and responsibilities as other federal judges, although on lower salaries. They handle small civil disputes, petty administrative and criminal offences. Appeals against decisions of justices of the peace go to district courts, the decisions of which are final. In each district there may be several justices of the peace.

1.3      Military Courts

The basic tier of military courts are the military courts of the armies, fleets, garrisons and military formations. The middle tier of military courts consists of military courts of the branches of the armed forces, the seven Military Districts into which the country is divided, and the districts of anti-aircraft defence, navy and individual armies. They consider disputes involving military personnel.

Note: A system of prosecutor’s offices parallel to that functioning for civilian courts exists for the military courts, up to and including the Military Prosecutor General's office.


1.4      Arbitration Courts (commercial courts)


Arbitration courts form a system with jurisdiction over commercial disputes that, as a rule, arise between legal persons. These courts must not be confused with courts of arbitration  (treteiskie sudy — third-party adjudication courts) that have not been established by the State. There are four levels of such arbitration courts.

1.4.1   The Supreme Arbitration Court of the Russian Federation. Judges for the Supreme Arbitration Court are proposed by the President of the Russian Federation (Article 127 of the Constitution) and approved by the Federation Council. The court acts both as a court of extra judicial instance (nadzor - supervisory review) and of original jurisdiction.

It exercises original jurisdiction over disputes between the Russian government and commercial parties, the government and subjects of the Russian Federation, or between subjects of the Russian Federation.

As with the Plenum of the Supreme Court, the Plenum of the Supreme Arbitration Court can also issue Regulations.

1.4.2  The ten Federal District Arbitration Courts act as court of cassation only.

1.4.3   The Appellate Courts consider appeals as a re-hearing with new evidence (unlike a cassation proceeding, which is limited to a review of the law).

1.4.4   The Arbitration Courts of the subjects of the Russian Federation consider the absolute majority of commercial disputes.



Like Justices of the Peace (see 1.2.3), the Constitutional (or charter) Courts of the subjects of the Russian Federation (2.1) are considered regional courts.

Article 27 of the Law “On the Judicial System of the Russian Federation” stipulates the possibility of creating such charter courts in the subjects of the Russian Federation. While the constitutions (or charters) of most subjects of the Russian Federation envisage the necessity of setting up such courts, in only a few (e.g. Karelia) are they now in existence and functioning today.

The constitutional and charter courts of the subjects are independent of the RF Constitutional Court. They have similar jurisdiction, however, and resolve cases concerning the compliance of regional laws and other normative acts of regional and local government with the constitutions (charters) of the subjects of the Russian Federation.

Anton Burkov,
Wolfson College, Cambridge University

Rights in Russia,
10 Dec 2009, 13:20