Russians choose magistrates as model of justice

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THE ENGLISH magistrate, the backbone of community justice and fair play, is to help prop up Russia's crumbling legal system.

This month the first Russian lawyers are to be sent to Britain to find out the secret of how our magistrates have been keeping the peace for 700 years.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia's courts have become flooded with new cases involving petty crime and "garden fence" disputes. Backlogs are so long that the judicial system is reaching breaking point. To combat the crisis, the Russian government has decided to create an army of magistrates based on the English model.

Russia has chosen the College of Law, Europe's largest provider of legal training, to develop a programme to help Russian lawyers understand what makes a good magistrate. They will then return to Russia and act as judicial trainers.

The move follows a meeting between the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and Vyacheslav Lebedev, chairman of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

The first 12 lawyers are expected to take their places at the college this month. They will also sit in on courts and examine the process for selecting justices of the peace.

Russian judges who enjoyed patronage under the hard-line communist regimes should immediately recognise one of the criteria for selecting Britain's 30,000 magistrates - political allegiance. Under the current system, voting patterns of the local communities help determine who becomes a magistrate.

This has been criticised for being unrepresentational and leading to the appointment of magistrates who are more willing to follow the government line. But for the meantime, Lord Irvine cannot find a better alternative. Last week he "reluctantly concluded that for now it remains the most practicable measure". Where Lord Irvine has failed, perhaps the Russians can triumph.

"This is an interesting and exciting project for the college as we are helping to play a part in shaping in shaping the future of the Russian judicial system," said Sarah Macdonald, deputy director of the college, which has 400 people teaching nearly 5,000 students at branches in London, Guildford, Chester and York.