There were three levels of courts, topped by the Senate in St. Petersburg, which served as the final court of appeal. Trials were public and juries decided criminal cases. The new judicial system had its defects, including a shortage of trained lawyers, and in later years the government removed certain cases from its jurisdiction, but on the whole the reform represented a vast improvement over what it replaced and provided Russia with an up-to-date and respectable system of justice.
The 1864 judicial reform created Russia's first constitution. When Alexander II signed the decree for the introduction of the judicial reform in November 1864, he delivered the death-blow to the autocracy. The judicial reform limited the authority of the monarch, since it separated the judiciary from the legislative and executive institutions, and confirmed the principle of judicial independence and tenure as a matter of law. But the reform of course went even further. It broke with the estate-based system of justice, as it had been promulgated by Catharine II at the end of the eighteenth century and set forth the equality of all subjects before the law. At least de jure, Russia was transformed into a state under the rule of law on the European model. No one was any longer to be punished for an action which the Criminal Code did not identify as a crime ('nullum crimen sine lege'), and in civil proceedings, the principle of 'where there is no plaintiff, neither shall there be a judge' thenceforth applied.
In 1874 the last of the Great Reforms reorganized military service. All classes of men, not just peasants, became liable to conscription, although the maximum term of six years (nine in the reserve) applied only to those with no education. The conscription term dropped with each level of education completed, down to only six months for university graduates. The 1874 law also abolished corporal punishment in the army, provided education for draftees, and in general dramatically improved the condition of all soldiers in the ranks.
The Great Reforms were a historically important step forward for Russia. They promoted capitalist economic development and the expansion of the middle classes, provided for better treatment of Russia's lower classes, both in civilian and in military life, and raised the educational level of the country as a whole. At the same time, in key ways they were incomplete and left many problems unsolved.
Meanwhile, even as he was carrying out his Great Reforms, Alexander II imposed other measures that undermined them, mainly because he feared dissent and instability. The czar was shaken by the Polish rebellion of 1863, which took more than a year to suppress, and even more by an attempt on his life in 1866 by an unbalanced former university student.
Alexander was also deeply concerned with the proliferation of avowed revolutionary groups. The czar first reacted to this threat in 1866 by appointing a conservative education minister, who immediately began to purge the education system of what he considered subversive subjects. Later attention focused on law enforcement. In 1871 cases involving alleged political crimes were removed from the jurisdiction of the courts and transferred to that of the political police.
Beginning in the late 1870s several types of political crimes were tried in military courts. In response to growing revolutionary activity, including the assassination of government officials, several decrees expanded the authority of military courts and increased the power of the police to detain and exile people suspected of subversive activity [3, 456].