The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary is concerned about the expedited review of the amendments to the Organic Law of Georgia on Common Courts by the Parliament of Georgia. It is unfortunate that this process, like past experiences, takes place in the pre-New Year’s period without public involvement and consultations.
On December 27, the Bureau of the Parliament, without providing any explanations, decided to consider the amendments to the Organic Law on Common Courts in an expedited manner and the Legal Committee supported presented amendments with the first reading during the same evening. It is also noteworthy that information about the committee meeting became known to the general public about two hours earlier, and the draft amendments were not public before the meeting. Despite the emphasis on civil society involvement in the process by the ruling team, during the committee meeting the critical opinions were not accepted and disrespectful attitudes towards NGO representatives were present.
Due to the sensitivity and importance of the issues addressed in the Bill, we consider its express review unjustified. The initiated changes concern the following issues:
1. Introduction of new types of disciplinary misconduct and penalties;
2. Lowering the quorum required for the High Council of Justice to make decisions on disciplinary proceedings;
3. Lifting the ban according to which the same person cannot be elected as a member of the High Council of Justice twice in a row.
The introduction of new types of disciplinary misconduct and penalties is in direct conflict with the independence of judges. The disposition of the disciplinary misconduct provided by the Bill and the types of new penalties create the impression that the new regulations are aimed at punishing specific judges and eliminating any dissent in the system. The adoption of such changes is unthinkable without public involvement and discussions even in established democracies. In Georgia, where one of the key challenges facing the court system is associated with the individual independence of judges, such legislative changes should be considered with even greater caution.
Moreover, it is clear that changes to the decision-making rule and lowering the quorum were instigated by the current composition of the High Council of Justice. For the last six months, the Parliament has not elected five non-judge members of the High Council of Justice. Therefore, the support of all ten existing members is needed for important decisions. It is often impossible to convene a quorum due to technical reasons (e.g. a member’s conflict of interest caused by connectsions with a judge). On the other hand, the appointment of non-judge members by Parliament requires a consensus between the ruling party and the opposition as the ruling party does not have sufficient number of votes for making such decisions. Consequently, the initiation of the draft amendments by the ruling party once again indicates that they are unwilling to engage in a constructive dialogue with the opposition. They also openly promote the interests of the influential group of judges in the court system.
Moreover, for a long period of time the civil society has been talking about the need to enact a consensus-based rule for important decisions and considering the votes of non-judge members in HCOJ. Reducing the number of votes needed for decisions on disciplinary issues to a simple majority instead of a 2/3 majority is another step backward.
It should be noted that for years, the court system has been criticized for corporatism and Clan-based governance in the High Council of Justice. The concentration of power is reinforced by the limited group of individuals holding administrative positions. Therefore, the ban on electing the same person as a member of the High Council of Justice twice in a row was one of the few positive legislative regulations aimed at preventing the concentration of power.
In view of all the above, we call on the Parliament:
1. To suspend consideration of the initiated draft amendments;
2. To establish a platform aimed at broad public participation and consensus to study the need for fundamental reforms of the justice system and develop corresponding changes.
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