The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, uniting 40 local civil society organizations, has issued a statement criticizing the closure of remote court hearings in the common courts of Georgia amid novel coronavirus pandemic.
On March 13, prior to the declaration of a state of emergency, the High Council of Justice (HCoJ), a state body overseeing the judiciary, drew up recommendations to ensure a “gradual transition” to remote hearings, which was a positive development, the CSOs noted.
HCoJ’s recommendations referred to restricting the number of attendees during the court hearings, including representatives of the media outlets. This, the Coalition claimed, did not imply full closure of the proceedings and complete prohibition of attendance.
The CSOs emphasized that transparency of court hearings was inalienable from the right to fair trial. Public hearings are crucial both for the fulfillment of rights of individuals, as well as for the society at large, they noted.
However, the Coalition said, the common courts failed to ensure transparency of court proceedings and enable court monitors and other interested parties to observe the trials.
According to the statement, a majority of Tbilisi City Court judges have fully restricted public attendance at remote hearings.
“Some criminal trial judges allow representatives of monitoring organizations to attend trials, while the majority of judges restrict [public] attendance by wrongfully citing regulations,” reads the statement. “Thus, they disregard the existing regulations and establish a faulty practice,” the CSOs concluded.
As stated by the Coalition, the presidential decree, as well as HCoJ recommendations “do not provide a legal basis” for limiting the right to fair trial. According to the Coalition, the new regulations are aimed at curbing the spread of the virus – an objective that does not imply holding court hearings in defiance of the standards established by the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Code of Georgia.
“The disregard of the principle of open hearings constitutes a grave violation of the rights of parties to the proceedings,” CSOs stressed.
Restrictions enacted by the judges “essentially violate” the right to public information of stakeholders, said the Coalition, adding that the practice of “full or partial” closure of proceedings ran counter to the principles of the rule of law and undermined right to fair trial.
The Coalition called on the HCoJ and the Chairs of Courts to promptly address the highlighted shortcomings in the court proceedings in order to avert violation of “one of the most important elements of the right to fair trial” – transparency of court proceedings.
Concluding the statement, CSOs stressed the need to ensure that all stakeholders (including court monitors) have “uninterrupted access” to court proceedings, and that all parties participate in the hearings.
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