By: Justice Victor V. Momotov
Justice Momotov serves as the President of the Council of Judges of the Russian Federation as well as Secretary of the Plenary Session of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. All opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author as an external expert and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UNODC.
Much has happened in 2020, and the novel coronavirus pandemic was the main change that caused a major restructuring of social life. Social and political institutions and, of course, the judicial system were forced to swiftly adjust the ways in which they worked, and the life, health and safety of every person became the main criteria and values that guided them. During that whole period, the court system never halted its activities and continued administering justice at a high level while meeting the requirements of reasonable time of proceedings.
In spring of 2020, when the harshest restrictive measures and self-isolation were introduced, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation and bodies of the judiciary jointly developed the necessary algorithm of actions for the lower courts during the pandemic. Three joint rulings of the Presidium of the Supreme Court and of the Presidium of the Council of Judges were adopted.  These contained recommendations regarding the work of the courts for the period of the corresponding limitations in Russia. These rulings formed the legal basis for the courts' work in the complicated epidemiological situation.
The courts did not stop considering urgent cases and materials pertaining to limitation of rights and freedoms, security, selection or replacement of pre-trial restriction measures, as well as certain other issues.
Overall, during the period of self-isolation that lasted from 19 March to 11 May 2020, the courts of the Russian Federation considered more than 3,400,000 cases and materials. Over 360,000 procedural documents were received by the courts in electronic form. Internet users accessed " Justice" State Automated System (SAS) more than 300 million times. On the whole, we recorded a further increase of workload within the judiciary in 2020; the volume of cases and materials considered by the courts was higher than for the preceding year.
The demand for e-resources continues to grow. The number of hits at the "Justice" SAS portal increased by 11.63 % in 2020, exceeding 3 billion, the number of personal accounts on the portal rose to 18.4 million. The number of documents filed electronically to federal courts of general jurisdiction in 2020 exceeded 2 million, which is two times higher than in 2019.
It became evident that this new situation is not a temporary one, which means that we have the task of developing new formats of administration of justice, which will allow to ensure its accessibility, openness and effectiveness, to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens regardless of negative external factors.
The spread and development of remote justice is now taking centre stage. During the pandemic, we were able to hold court sessions thanks to videoconferencing and web conferencing systems. Clear is the need to further advance the possibilities of web conferencing with biometric authentication of the trial participants through facial and voice recognition.
Full-scale transfer to e-document flow and further development of e-justice options are also becoming a hot topic. E-document flow allows the courts to ensure the accessibility of justice, as well as to decrease the risks of various violations and external interference, and also eliminates the chances of documents getting lost during the transfer from one court to another, which is particularly useful for the courts of cassation.
Currently, e-justice is provided through the corresponding subsystem of "Justice" SAS along with " My Arbiter", the " Databank of Commercial Cases" and the " Databank of Decisions of Commercial Courts" information systems. They ensure e-document flow in criminal, civil, commercial proceedings and the administrative judicial procedure, creating a single information space for federal courts of general jurisdiction and commercial courts. The Russian court system has already demonstrated good results in implementing the electronic form of court document flow.
A comprehensive service called "Justice Online" is also currently being developed. It will form the base of a single information space for the courts and ensure the accessibility and openness of justice. It will unite the possibilities for remote submission and receipt of court documents in electronic or digital form, as well as remote participation in court proceedings. The service will be integrated with other information systems, such as the State (Municipal) Services Cloud Platform, Digital Profiles, National Data Management System.
A single information space should also be created, which will unite the aforementioned information systems ("Justice of the Peace", "My Arbiter", "Databank of Commercial Cases" and "Databank of Decisions of Commercial Courts") on the general platform of "Justice" SAS, providing the judges with access to various state resources
.. This is necessary, so that when administering justice a judge is able to instantly verify the information contained in the statement of claim and provided by the parties. Such a single information system will speed up court proceedings and make justice more efficient.
What should we be apprehensive about due to the appearance of non-material forms of judicial procedure? First of all, there is the threat to the human and symbolic image of justice. Justice has been, is and will always remain human, because people, their lawful interests and disputes about those interests are always the foundation of the judicial procedure. And the behaviour of these participants of court procedures is better seen during live interaction. It allows the judge to see the picture more objectively, to reach fair and substantiated conclusions. The place where justice is administered, such as the court building and the premises, the symbols of judicial power, the image of the judge, and many other things pertaining to the realization of judicial power play a huge role that influences the people's perception of the judiciary. These objects suggest the existence of something greater than their perceived and direct meaning, which only has to do with their functional purpose.
In contrast, technological modernization, such as conducting the trial via videoconference, make the whole court process more abstract, dehumanize it, depersonalize it in the emotional sense, and influence its legitimacy. Moreover, when holding a trial via videoconference, right from the start we encounter issues regarding normative regulations and rules of conduct for the trial participants, their look and location during the broadcast, as well as many other factors.
In addition, videoconferencing has such downsides as a less direct or less precise understanding of the words and reactions of the parties, witnesses and experts by the judge. One should always remember the stunning effect of the live spoken word.
The principle of the direct nature of proceedings dictates that the court considering the case must personally study the evidence during the court session. This direct perception is a way to ensure that the court gets the full and objective impression from the process, which promotes the full and correct establishment of the truth in the case. The use of videoconferencing brings a certain risk of violation of this principle. We believe that the legislator should determine the principle of the direct nature of proceedings regarding videoconferencing or set the limits within which it is admissible to use videoconferencing under particular circumstances.
It is clear that live interaction with the court gives the participants of proceedings the opportunity to promptly state their views, help the court navigate the case materials and observe the non-verbal cues of other participants.
The overdependence on technology and on those controlling it may present another danger for justice. A piece of software that is correctly compiled from the technical viewpoint does not always fully adhere to the principles of justice and the specific features of judicial work.
The active use of the internet in promoting remote formats of judicial proceedings raises the issue of commitment to the principle of openness of justice. The internet makes the whole judicial process completely transparent and open, which, in general, exerts a positive influence on the level of the citizens' legal awareness and increases trust in the judiciary. Herewith, issues of confidentiality become a danger and a challenge. Vast volumes of information are stored in databases, which may be put to ill use by third persons, especially as regards criminal proceedings.
Work in pandemic settings has shown that the continuous activities of the judicial system, its efficiency and ability to adapt to current challenges directly depend on the application of top-notch information technology in the justice sphere.
 The English text of the latest Ruling, as well as the translations of the Reviews of Judicial Practice mentioned in the text, are available at the dedicated page on the Supreme Court's website, http://www.vsrf.ru/en/about/covid19/