The Use and Abuse of Legal Services in Nineteenth-century Russia
The paper discusses the popular use of legal services in the Russian Empire in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Although the studies of popular attitudes towards courts and formal legal were before the collapse of the ancien régime in 1917 abound, they overwhelmingly focus on litigation in low-level judicial settings with very few professional lawyers involved, while the relationship between the members of general public and legal professionals largely remained obscure with the main exception of the state criminals and their public defenders. Therefore, this paper aims to fill the gap by exploring the accessibility of legal services to the various groups of general public along with the ways people interpreted the relationships they had with legal practitioners and the conflicts that sprang from the discrepancy between professional and lay approaches to legal services. The paper focuses on the relationships between general public and the most privileged group of lawyers, named sworn attorneys, which appeared after the reform of legal procedure in the mid-1860s and was entitled to a great deal of professional autonomy, including the right to form partially independent local bar associations. These bar associations were supervised by the elected doyens who could bring disciplinary proceedings against sworn attorneys if they failed to peacefully resolve the disputes with their clients, legal officials or colleagues. Since a disciplinary proceeding usually started with a client complaint about lawyer's professional misconduct, the archives of the bar associations seem to offer a rare look at the professional-client relationship from the perspective of ordinary people. This study draws upon the records of the multiple disciplinary proceedings kept in the archive of the Moscow bar association which encompassed sworn attorneys practising in the Central European provinces of the Empire. The scope of primary sources is narrowed down to the records spanning the well documented period between 1883 and 1902 and representing the situation when clients appeared unsatisfied with the way sworn attorneys argued civil cases on their behalf. As the records show, all social groups, including peasantry, made ample use of legal services provided by sworn attorneys to protect their property rights. Furthermore, the proportion of clients from rural areas was on the steady rise during the observed period. Meanwhile, the complaints tended to fall into two groups. While the first group of complainers believed that sworn attorneys failed to adhere to the formal requirements of the legal procedure and, therefore, lost the cases in question, the second group encompassed those who challenged lawyers' professional expertise blaming the loss on the incomprehension or even incoherent legal arguments sworn attorneys had allegedly put forward in the course of lawsuits. The higher social status a complainer had, the more prone she/he was to the second kind of disputes. Nonetheless, there was one thing that the high-status complainers apparently shared with their counterparts of less affluent backgrounds. Surprisingly, most of the complainers, regardless of their social status, demanded sworn attorneys to repay their litigation costs, assuming that legal practitioners would provide a safety net if a lawsuit resulted in significant financial losses.