School of Court Reporting opens in St Petersburg

On 7 – 8 November, Saint Petersburg was host to the first seminar of the School of Judiciary Journalism, organized by Citizens’ Watch and the Guild of Court Reporters. Leading figures and experts at the event included Executive Director of the Guild, Sergei Chizhkov; journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the news agency «Судебные Решения.РФ» (courtdecisions.rf), Pavel Netupskiy; Professor of Criminal Law at Saint Petersburg State University and retired Chairman of the Saint Petersburg City Court, Vladimir Poludnyakov; and spokeswoman and assistant to the chairman of the Pushkin District Court of Saint Petersburg, Daria Lebedeva. Participants included journalists from the cities of Saint Petersburg, Pskov, Petrozavodsk, Murmansk, Arkhangels, Vologda, and Kaliningrad. 

The event began with a lecture presented by Sergei Chizhkov about the legal basis of judicial transparency in Russia, which he began with the message that in the West, every journalist, no matter what topic he or she specializes in, still practices in court. Mr. Chizhkov spoke about the adoption and entry into force of the Law on Access to Information about the Activities of the Courts (Federal Law No 262) and its differences from the similar Law on Access to Information about the Activities of Public Authorities (Federal Law No 8). In particular, Law 262, in contrast with Law 8, does not contain a deadline for registration. Mr. Chizhkov also spoke about the most important problems with the law: foremost, in his view, are the practices of publishing procedural appeals and anonymizing records of judicial decisions in general and particularly those that concern public affairs. It was noted that with respect to the legal system, Russia is closer to Germany or France, whereas its system for the publication of court decisions more closely resembles the American system in that everything is published, except that which is listed in Law 262. The expert went on to analyze other regulations as well as the resolution of the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, which summarizes the federal laws regarding media and access to information about the activities of the courts. During the course of the ensuing discussion, participants turned their attention to the consideration of requests for information and the difficulties encountered by journalists directly in the courtroom.

This was followed by a presentation by Vladimir Poludnyakov, who began with a comparison of judges and journalists. In his opinion, both groups exercise control: the former, legally, and the latter, socially. Because of this duality, being in a state of confrontation is not beneficial to either party. Professor Poludnyakov spoke about typical mistakes committed by journalists, using specific cases as examples, and shared his thoughts on the progress of judicial reform in Russian from the start of the early 1990s until today; on the imbalance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and on the implementation of the principles of tenure and immunity of judges. At the conclusion of his lecture, the retired judge touched on the theme of humanitarian justice, claiming that the main criterion for the quality of court journalism was impartiality. 

Later, Elena Elonysheva, a magistrate and member of the board of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Association of Judges, spoke about cooperation and interaction between judges and journalists. She said that cooperation would be better if journalists gave notice of their presence in the courtroom in advance as this requires additional time and effort for court workers. In response to Pavel Netupskiy’s comment that judges increasingly tend to trust the police, Ms. Elonysheva noted that, unfortunately, the criminal and administrative processes in Russia at the moment are not adversarial. In her view, this is the result of imperfections in the current legislation.

The first day ended with a discussion on the ethical aspects of court journalism, such as when Mr. Netupskiy questioned the media’s practice of creating an image of guilt before the verdict is even delivered and other complex situations. 

On the second day, participants examined the practice of publishing court decisions, citing the site of the Pushkin District Court of Saint Petersburg as an example. Mr. Netupskiy spoke of the most important problems arising from the publication of court information, gave recommendations on dealing with judicial statistics, and elaborated on the specifics of working with personal data. The expert also spoke about the main aspects of working with databases of judicial information.

The last stage of the seminar consisted of independent work, during which participants searched for court decisions on the theme of consumer rights with regard to mobile services and prepared abstracts on specific rulings. Through the analysis and description of their chosen cases, participants in the seminar attempted to generalize practices in this sphere and share their findings.