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Legislative Amendments on Judicial Reform Approved

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The Parliament of Georgia approved the package of bills known as the “third wave of the judicial reforms” with its third and final reading on December 29, which entails introduction of electronic case assignment system from 2018.

The package, drafted by the Ministry of Justice and made up of eight bills, was amended significantly compared to its initial draft, including after its return to the second reading on December 28.

According to the final version, cases will be assigned automatically to regional, appeals and Supreme Court judges, through random electronic selection. Cases can also be assigned by alphabetical order of judges if there are delays in the electronic system. The bill authors claim that the rule of electronic case assignment will minimize the role of court chairpersons in the process.

According to the bill, the new system will initially be introduced in the Rustavi City Court from July 1, 2017 and it will apply to the rest of the courts until the end of 2017.

One more amendment introduced to the draft bill during the ongoing parliamentary session, relates to lifting the obligation of a three-year probationary period for judges before their lifetime appointment.  According to the final version, those incumbent and former members of Constitutional and Supreme Courts, who have at least three-year work experience, will not have to go through a three-year probationary period, as well as passing the qualification exams of judges and studying at the High School of Justice. This formula does not apply to other potential judges; they will be able to take the posts through competition, provided that they meet the criteria envisaged by these legislative amendments.

Deputy Justice Minister Mikheil Sarjveladze, who presented the draft to the parliament’s plenary session on December 29, did not respond to MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili, who inquired whether the proposed amendments would enable Levan Murusidze, the judge of the Court of Appeals and the Secretary of the High Council of Justice, to be appointed for lifetime tenure. Murusidze presided over the high-profile murder case of Sandro Girgvliani, when the case was heard at the Supreme Court. Murusidze is currently undergoing a three-year probationary period before his appointment for lifetime tenure.

The rule of electing appeals and city court chairpersons remained unchanged and they will still be appointed by the High Council of Justice for a term of five years. The issue was disputed with GDDG MP Kutsnashvili backing the selection of chairpersons through sortition; the initiative, however, was rejected by other GDDG members.

This provision was amended at every stage of parliamentary proceedings. According to the initial draft, the court chairpersons were to be elected for a term of three years by judges, but the rule was changed during the first reading with chairpersons to be elected and appointed by the High Council of Justice out of three candidates nominated by judges. This rule, however, was not reflected in the final version. The present rule of electing appeals and city court chairpersons by the High Council of Justice remained unchanged with the addition that authorizes the High Council of Justice to approve a chairperson from those judges who are going through a three-year probationary period and who have at least five-year work experience as a chairperson.

According to the package of bills, the number of Supreme Court judges should be no less than 16. The Supreme Court’s Plenum will be able to increase the number of judges. According to the current rule, the number of judges in the Supreme Court is defined by the Plenum and not by law.

Parliamentary Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze welcomed the adoption of legislative amendments and said that bill would “further strengthen the judicial independence.” The parliamentary opposition groups were not actively involved in the December 28-29 discussions.

The adopted bill will enter into force after President Giorgi Margvelashvili signs it into law.

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