Ukraine’s justice system under assault, report finds

28 July 2022 By Jess Feyder

The Russian invasion has had detrimental impacts on Ukraine’s justice system, finds a report by the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC).

The International Bar Association (IBA) has published a new report by the ILAC documenting the impact of the Russian invasion on the Ukrainian justice system. 

The report Under Assault: A Status Report on the Ukrainian Justice System in Wartime, authored by William D. Meyer, surveyed each region of Ukraine to understand the practical impact of the war on the judiciary, lawyers, law students, prosecution services, courthouses, and other infrastructure.

Historically, Ukraine’s justice system has come under strong influence of corrupt outside forces, perpetuated chiefly by Ukrainian oligarchs, many of whom were supported by and aligned with Russian interests.

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Efforts against judicial corruption were launched by the Ukrainian government in the latter part of the 2010s. Legislation aimed to rid the justice system of corrupt and incompetent professionals; this involved massive programs to examine the entire judicial and prosecutorial services. 

New judicial and prosecutorial structures were created to encourage the prosecution of the power brokers at the centre of the corruption, and structural changes were implemented in courts to increase transparency. 

Slowly, and against entrenched opposition, these reform programs removed thousands of corrupt judges and prosecutors. When Putin invaded in February 2022, these initiatives were thrown into chaos. 

Seventy-two court buildings (nearly 10 per cent of physical infrastructure in the Ukrainian judicial system) have been damaged, looted or destroyed.

Thousands of judges, prosecutors, staff, and lawyers fled; others enlisted in the Ukrainian military, while some joined the Russian occupiers. 

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Courts and prosecutors’ offices are now struggling to reorganise and function under wartime conditions. The report found that new case filings plummeted by 80 to 90 per cent, with courts seeing a sharp drop in funding as resources shifted to the military.

Russia’s attack has changed the nature of cases in the justice system. Commercial matters have largely diminished as businesses grapple with a wartime economy. “Routine” crime continues, especially in regions less impacted by direct violence.

Judges, lawyers, and prosecutors are facing cases involving previously unknown offences, such as war crimes and collaboration or expression of support for the Russian invasion via social media. 

Many lawyers have fled and seen their livelihoods disappear. Legal educators struggle to connect with students who are being accepted overseas. 

The anti-corruption processes and institutions put in place prior to the invasion are attempting to push through the headwinds created by the war.

For the Ukrainian judicial system, the future hinges on the outcome of the ongoing military engagements, stated the ILAC. The issues likely to face a post-conflict Ukraine are identifiable: the rehabilitation of physical infrastructure and the reconstitution of judicial and prosecutorial services. Caseloads must be stabilised and integrated with the influx of new matters involving offences relating to wartime conditions. Corruption reform efforts within courts must regain footing and press towards a trustworthy and effective justice system.  

Mr Meyer commented: “The conflict continues to evolve in Ukraine and some of the material in this report will become outdated. But uncertainty should not lead to inaction.

“What we found is that Ukraine’s justice system was far from perfect before the war, and the war will only compound shortcomings in anti-corruption efforts, judicial appointments, legal education, and the digitalisation of justice.

“Our report gives a starting point for rebuilding efforts that will have to include reconstituting the judicial and prosecutorial corps, disentangling wartime jurisdictions, and managing new caseloads peculiar to wartime offenses.”

ILAC president and IBA executive director Dr Mark Ellis said: By comparing what existed before Russia’s war to what exists now, we begin to realise the magnitude of the war’s impact on Ukraine’s justice system.

“Infrastructure can be repaired, but justice is about so much more than buildings. ILAC’s timely and thorough status report demonstrates how Ukraine’s justice system is adapting in wartime and the incredible investment it will take from the national government and international community to rebuild once there is peace.”

Ukraine’s justice system under assault, report finds
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