Kazakhstan’s Effective Judicial System

has underpinned its development

By Zhakip Assanov

When outside observers look at Kazakhstan, it is the growth of the economy and progress of our society which, for good reasons, grabs the most attention. Both aspects represent remarkable success stories, given the state of the country and the Soviet heritage when independence was gained.

However, this focus can lead to neglect of the many factors which have underpinned these achievements — and this includes the critical role of judicial reform in the country’s history over the last 26 years. Experience from around the world has shown the difficulty of sustainable development without modernising the legal system and strengthening the rule of law.

It was a lesson that Kazakhstan has learned from the earliest days as a modern nation. We inherited a Soviet legal system with low public trust, which put punishment before justice and was completely unsuited for supporting a market economy. Without reform, this could be a major barrier to progress.

We have started to remove these obstacles from the beginning. Early measures were aimed at strengthening the independence of the judicial bodies. The selection of judges was modernised and their status and power have been enhanced. The life-long appointments serve for their protection from external pressures, preserve experience and expertise.

This was coupled with the introduction of specialised economic, administrative, criminal and juvenile courts which significantly improved the way cases were considered. All these steps helped alter the way courts were viewed by our citizens and gave them confidence that the legal system could protect their interests. It has led, for example, to a ten-fold increase in court applications — this indicates that the public now believe they can trust the law to arrive at a fair decision.

These far-reaching reforms have been accelerated in recent years as Kazakhstan works towards its ambitions of joining the ranks of the 30 most developed nations. Expert foreign judges and lawyers have been recruited to sit on an International Council which advises on further steps to meet the highest global standards. The previous five-tier legal system has been reduced to three levels to simplify and shorten the time cases take.

Selection, training and accountability of judges continue to be improved. A new independent state body — the Higher Judicial Council — now selects judges who must have at least five years court experience or a decade long experience in other legal professions. The Academy of Justice has been established to improve training and support for judges and other key court staff. A wide-ranging Code of Ethics for the judiciary — which has won international approval — has been adopted.

On the economic front, the protection for investors has also been strengthened. New investment courts have been set up to handle major disputes. Kazakhstan’s adherence to OECD rules underlines the country’s commitment to maintaining the best legal environment for investors.

We have similar far-reaching modernisation in the way criminal cases are handled to improve protection for our citizens. Judges have been given increased oversight of procedures before trial to prevent abuses. The period of time suspects can be detained without court authorisation has been reduced. Courts are increasingly seeking alternatives to incarceration.

Kazakhstan has also been a pioneer in the use of technology in the region. All courts have audio and video recording to help ensure openness and transparency. Remote participation in proceedings, including from abroad, has been introduced. Courts receive 92% of claims in civil cases online. Court notifications are sent via short text messages (SMS) and e-mail. We want to harness all the opportunities that the digital revolution will bring to improve the way our justice system works.

We are proud of the progress we have made which has seen our courts ranked sixth out of 190 countries in the international Doing Business report. However, we believe there is still plenty of room for improvement which is why the Supreme Court, which I head, began a comprehensive consultation exercise to identify further priorities for development. The result of over 1,000 proposals from experts, practicing lawyers and the public was the setting up of teams to develop urgent reforms in seven major areas.

Their work is already making a difference. Following the concern that too few of those involved in the process may clearly understand all that was happening in a court room, judges are solving the situation by using simpler language. We have also learnt from the experience of Singapore and other countries how mediation efforts can help reconcile disputing parties. A pilot implementation in Astana, overseen by experienced judges with skills in conciliation has been started. During the first months it has helped settle half of all the cases considered by a judge-mediator.

I am confident that when the seven priority programmes are fully implemented, this will both further enhance the effectiveness of the justice system in Kazakhstan and increase public trust in it. We know how important it is for our country and our goals for the future to continue strengthening the rule of law and give everyone the confidence that their rights and interests are protected.

The author is the Chairman of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Kazakhstan