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Military Justice, The Judiciary and the Legal Profession

Military justice in the Soviet Union was administered by the Main Military Procuracy, which was subordinated to the procurator general and responsible for ensuring that laws were observed within the military. It also supervised criminal investigations of armed forces personnel carried out by its employees, as well as by the MVD (in cases of political crime). Military cases were tried in military tribunals, which were under the authority of the Supreme Court.

The court structure in the Soviet Union, set forth in the Constitution and governed by several all-union and republic statutes, was quite complex. In courts of first instance, one judge sat with two elected people's assessors (lay judges), who were ordinary citizens, elected at general meetings of factories, offices, collective farms, or residential blocks for a term of two years. Appellate and review procedure came before a bench of three judges. Although a legal education was not required and any citizen over the age of twenty-four could in principle be elected to the post of judge, more than 95 percent of all judges had higher legal education. The party carefully screened candidates for election to the position of judge, which had a term of five years. Most judges above the local level were party members. In addition to determining innocence or guilt, judges performed an important function of socialization, often lecturing defendants for failing to uphold socialist values. Judges were part of the union-republic Ministry of Justice and the fifteen republic ministries of justice. There was no system of binding precedent, but supreme courts at all-union and republic levels gave "guiding explanations" to be followed.

Advocates, or defense attorneys, were controlled by the Ministry of Justice at the all-union and republic level and at the local level by the justice department of the local soviet. Advocates were usually law school graduates with some practical training. The Soviet Union had approximately 18,000 advocates, organized into colleges of around 150 attorneys each. These colleges maintained consultation bureaus, each with a staff of about twenty, in most towns and cities. The bureaus provided legal advice on a variety of issues, such as divorce, custody, inheritance, property rights, and housing disputes. The bureaus also offered legal defense for persons accused of criminal offenses. According to the 1977 Constitution, all defendants had the right to legal counsel. Legal fees were set by the state and were low enough for most people to afford. According to Soviet émigrés, however, many defense lawyers expected additional payments or gifts "under the table."

Legal advisers to government agencies and departments, enterprises, factories, and state farms (see Glossary) were called iuriskonsul'ty. Numbering approximately 29,000 in 1989, they represented their employer in court and drafted internal rules, contracts, and commercial documents.

Data as of May 1989

Sources and Methods


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