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Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine features: The Historical Evolution of Ukrainian Law and Legal Tradi

Marko R. Stech (Toronto)

August 2013

Before states were formed, communities on Ukrainian territory were governed by customary law. The history of Ukrainian law is divided into periods according to the distinctive states that arose in Ukraine. In the Princely era (9th-14th centuries) the main sources of law were customary law, agreements such as international treaties, compacts among princes, contracts between princes and the people, princely decrees, vichedecisions, and Byzantine law. The most original legal monument of the period is Ruskaia Pravda, which includes the principal norms of substantive and procedural law.

The medieval Kyivan Rus’ state declined, but its law continued to function. In the 14th to 15th centuries it was known as Rus’ law in Ukrainian territories under Polish rule. Gradually, it was replaced by public as well as private Polish law. At the same time (14th-17th centuries) Lithuanian-Ruthenian law developed in Ukrainian territories within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The laws compiled in the Lithuanian Register and the Lithuanian Statute remained in force within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, to some extent, in the Hetman state.

The law of the Cossack period was based on the Hetman’s treaties and legislative acts, the Lithuanian Statute, compilations of customary law and Germanic law, and court decisions. The autonomous Hetman state had its own law systematized in the Code of Laws of 1743. With the abolition of Ukrainian autonomy at the end of the 18th century, Russian law, first public and then civil, was introduced in Russian-ruled territories. In Western Ukraine, Austrian law was introduced in 1772-5…

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LAW. The set of compulsory rules governing relations among individuals as well as institutions in a given society. Being part of the national culture, the law is influenced by the beliefs of a society and is inextricably involved in its social, political, and economic development. The term for law, pravo, originally meant ‘judgment’ or ‘trial.’ The original legal tradition developed on Ukrainian lands came to an end in the 18th century, when foreign Russian law was introduced in Russian-ruled territories. In Western Ukraine, Austrian law was introduced in 1772-5. Except for state and political laws, the laws of the former regimes remained in force during the brief period of Ukraine’s struggle for independence (1917-20). Ukrainian legislators and jurists did not have time to construct an independent system of law. During the Soviet period legal norms were determined not only by the constitution and the laws or decrees of the government, but also by the Communist Party program and the current Party line. Thus, law was an instrument of politics. Attempts to de-politicize law and bring it closer to European standards have been made in independent Ukraine since 1991…

CUSTOMARY LAW (zvychaieve pravo; also known as the unwritten law). Norms of conduct that are practiced in society because they have been accepted for a long time and are regarded as obligatory. Customary law in Ukraine dates back to prehistoric times. In the Princely era legal relations were governed by customary law, which was eventually codified in Ruskaia Pravda. The decrees issued by the princes explicated customary law rather than creating new law. With the demise of Kyivan Rus’ Ukrainian customary law continued to operate even under the Tatars, who did not interfere in the internal affairs of their conquered territories, and then under Polish hegemony. The norms of Ukrainian customary law were preserved under Lithuanian rule and were codified in the Lithuanian Statute, which to a large extent, particularly in respect to civil, criminal, and procedural norms, was based on ancient Ukrainian customary law. In the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state the community courts were a judicial institution based on customary law. They continued to operate in the Cossack period, but their importance gradually diminished…

RUSKAIA PRAVDA (Rus’ Truth [Law]). The most important collection of old Ukrainian-Rus’ laws and an important source for the study of the legal and social history of Rus’-Ukraine and neighboring Slavic countries. It was compiled in the 11th and 12th centuries on the basis of customary law. The original text has never been found, but there are over 100 transcriptions in existence from the 13th to 18th centuries. There are three redactions of Ruskaia Pravda, the short, expanded, and condensed versions. The expanded redaction, consisting of 121 articles, was the most widespread. In the criminal law of the expanded redaction blood vengeance was replaced by monetary fines and state penalties. Serious crimes, such as horse stealing, robbery, and arson, were punished by banishment and seizure. With the exception of the most privileged strata in the society, all free citizens were protected by the code. Its main purpose was to provide individuals with the power to defend their right to life, health, and property and to provide courts with the basis for a fair judgment. A characteristic feature of Ruskaia Pravda is its evolution toward a more humane law system…

LITHUANIAN-RUTHENIAN LAW [Lytovs’ko-Rus’ke pravo]. The system of law of the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state or, more precisely, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which from the 14th to the 18th century included Lithuania, Belarus, and most of Ukraine (to the Union of Lublin in 1569). The Lithuanian-Ruthenian law was initially based on Ruskaia Pravda and later on the Lithuanian Statute as well as Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian customary law. The systematic study of Lithuanian-Ruthenian law began in the first half of the 19th century. Polish historians considered it a local variant of Polish law, and Russian historians usually referred to it as ‘western Russian’ law and treated it as part of Russian law. Eventually, it was studied by Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian historians and legal scholars, who accepted it as part of the legal history of all three nations…

LITHUANIAN STATUTE. The code of laws of the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state, published in the 16th century in three basic editions. It was one of the most advanced legal codes of its time. The overriding concern of the First or Old Lithuanian Statute (1529) was to protect the interests of the state and nobility, especially the magnates. The Second Lithuanian Statute (1566), often called the Volhynian version because of the influence of the Volhynian nobility in its preparation, brought about major administrative-political reforms and expanded the privileges of the lower gentry. In the Third Lithuanian Statute (1588) many Polish concepts were introduced into the criminal and civil law, which were systematized anew. All three editions of the Lithuanian Statute were written in the contemporary Ruthenian chancellery language, which was a mixture of Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. The Lithuanian Statute remained for several centuries the basic collection of laws in Ukraine. It was the main source of Ukrainian law for the Cossack Hetman state and the basic source of the Code of Laws of 1743. In Right-Bank Ukraine it remained in force until 1840, when it was annulled by Tsar Nicholas I…

CODE OF LAWS OF 1743. Collection of prevailing Ukrainian laws in the Cossack Hetman state. The Russian government never ratified the code of laws, and hence it remained only a proposal, although it became the basic source of operative law in Ukraine in the 17th and 18th centuries. The code of laws was prepared by the committee composed of representatives of the higher clergy, Cossack officers, and municipal administrators. The main sources of the code were the Lithuanian Statute and the compilation of the Germanic law (Magdeburg law and Kulm law). In addition, hetman manifestos, Cossack court practice, and Ukrainian customary law were drawn on. In cases where no relevant law existed in the code, the code prescribed the use of other ‘Christian’ laws (law of analogy), court precedents, and customary law. The creative work of the committee consisted of the selection of quotes from written sources, their partial modification, and the incorporation of amendments to them. The prescriptions of criminal law reflected the severity of ancient law, moderated by the right of the court to reduce prescribed punishment ‘according to circumstances of the case’ and ‘the severity of the crime’…


The preparation, editing, and display of the IEU entries about the historical evolution of Ukrainian law and legal tradition were made possible by the financial support of the CANADIAN FOUNDATION FOR UKRAINIAN STUDIES.


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