NGOs Assess Proposed Amendments to Law on Common Courts

Non-governmental organizations, united under the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, assessed the Proposed Amendments to the Organic Law on Common Courts, also known as the fourth wave of judicial reforms, which was submitted to the Parliament for approval.

The coalition underlined some positive changes, like the specification of grounds for disciplinary responsibility of judges and separation of the selection of listeners of the High School of Justice (HSoJ) from the functions of the High Council of Justice (HCOJ), which is the supreme oversight body in charge of regulating the judiciary in Georgia. However, the NGOs stressed that some changes made to the bill are “critical” and need to be revised.

The Organic Law on Common Courts reads that the High Council of Justice appoints the chairs and deputy chairs of the Appeals Courts and the Chairs of the District (City) Courts. The NGOs believe that this is not correct, noting judges should select the chairs themselves.

“The problem is that this power is an additional tool for the HCOJ to control the judicial system and is directed against independence of individual judges. The proposal does not substantively address the existing problem, but only sets an obligatory consultation with the judges of the court, where a chair is to be appointed, with no obligation to heed their opinions. The Coalition has repeatedly noted that it supports the model where judges themselves select the court chair,” the statement of the coalition reads.

The proposed changes read that the Chair of the Independent Board is elected by the HCOJ. The Coalition considers that to support the Board’s organizational independence, it would be best if the Board itself elected the Chair.

Another issue criticized by the NGOs is the disciplinary responsibility of judges. According to the draft, a 2/3 majority of HCOJ members makes a substantiated decision on starting disciplinary proceedings against a judge and when deciding not to start disciplinary proceedings, the HCOJ does not have an obligation to substantiate the decision.

“The principle of accountability obliges the HCOJ to substantiate all of its decisions, which must be reflected in the law,” the coalition stated.

The NGOs also have concerns regarding the new Judicial Ethics Council which will be created under the changes. They say that the draft does not contain enough information regarding the Council and it is unclear what the functions of this new body are, how its members are selected, etc. The Coalition believes that this part of the amendments should be suspended until these outstanding issues are specified.

In addition, the proposed bill does not have a clear indication regarding the openness and transparency of HCOJ sessions, and only refers to publishing information on the web page and availability of audio recordings. The non-governmental sector believes that the HCOJ sessions should be open, including during the interviews with first and second instance court judges.

“Also, it is important that the HCOJ sessions are transmitted via live-stream, allowing any interested party to observe the process. The Coalition considers that both of these issues must be directly regulated by the law,” the statement reads.

Regarding the grounds for dismissing an HCOJ member, the draft reads that unsatisfactory fulfillment of responsibility remains one of the grounds for dismissing an HCOJ member. NGOs say this formulation can be interpreted extremely widely and will, in sum, affect the degree of independence of the HCOJ members, and should be abolished.

Among these main concerns, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary also listed other issues that need to be addressed before the adoption of the Amendments to the Organic Law on Common Courts.

The NGOs called on the Parliament to take into account the notes of the third sector regarding the deficiencies and to prepare amendments addressing the problems that impede improvements in the Georgian judiciary.

The first wave of judicial reform was launched in Georgia in May, 2013. Since then, three waves of the reforms have been implemented so far, while the fourth has just finished and now the parliament has to decide to adopt it or not. The aim of the reforms is to secure the independence of judiciary and to consolidate an institutional democracy of functional institutions in the country.

By Tea Mariamidze

Image source: Emerging Europe

 

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