Georgia: Judges learn to "just say no" to outside influences
|Publication Date||3 March 2010|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Georgia: Judges learn to "just say no" to outside influences, 3 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b966e7519.html [accessed 29 May 2016]|
Molly Corso 3/03/10
This story was updated on 3/03/10 to amend HSOJ Deputy Director Shota Rukhadze's title and the name of the exam required for admission to the HSOJ.
A training school for prospective judges is winning cautious acclaim for fostering improvements in Georgia's much-maligned judicial system. But critics contend that one key challenge – preventing judges from allowing outside forces to influence their verdicts – remains to be fully addressed.
Georgian judges have long been popularly associated with corruption, government interference and arbitrary rulings. A 2009 survey by pollster Gorbi International reported that nearly half of the 1,000 respondents believed that Georgian judges depended on the government for "instructions" before rendering verdicts. Such criticism was leveled most recently at the 2009 Mukhrovani mutiny trial and at the court-ordered disposal of assets belonging to the late oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The state-run High School of Justice (HSOJ), established in 2006, is an attempt to improve judicial performance and alter perceptions of the system. All Georgian lawyers hoping to become judges must now first complete the HSOJ curriculum.
The 14-month program emphasizes practical experience; students hold mock trials and intern with Tbilisi City Court judges. Their regular coursework includes seminars with visiting foreign judges.
HSOJ Deputy Director Shota Rukhadze affirms that the school's curriculum teaches students to examine every relationship and transaction for a potential conflict of interest – not an easy task in a culture where personal and family relationships play a vital role in day-to-day life. HSOJ students are told that "[f]rom now on, you are on the path to becoming a judge.... Every interaction that you might have could be misconstrued by the public," Rukhadze said.
Rukhadze, a 30-year-old attorney who formerly ran judicial trainings for the European Commission's TACIS (Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States) program in Tbilisi, identifies the lack of public trust and the perception that Georgia's courts are under government influence as "our biggest problem." He believes that the school is successful because it addresses those concerns at the source – the judges themselves.
Graduation from the program offers no guarantee that a student will become a judge. A High Council of Justice, made up of court administrators, appoints lower-court Georgian judges for ten-year terms. So far, only a dozen or so students who have graduated from HSOJ and been named to the bench.
Representatives of Western donor organizations that have worked with the HSOJ generally express satisfaction with the school's results, but declined to be cited.
Some local attorneys interviewed by EurasiaNet.org say that the training appears to be paying off, some pointing to the impression that judicial verdicts seem better written now, they say. But the local attorneys also caution that Georgia's legal system still requires radical reform.
"[HSOJ] works successfully; it has good support," commented attorney Vakhtang Mchedlishvili, a former assistant at the High Council of Justice and the Supreme Court. "[B]ut that cannot change anything since the legislative branch and the executive branch are not working to give the judges more authority."
Meanwhile, many judges remain concerned that "vague" rules covering judicial misconduct could expose them to unfair retribution in cases where they issue rulings that go against government interests, said Tamar Khidasheli, the head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association. A regulation that allows judges to be reassigned to another district without their consent is a particular source of concern, she claimed.
The government acknowledges the scope of the challenge, but insists that progress is being made. In his February 26 speech to parliament on the state of the country, President Mikheil Saakashvili underlined measures taken "to create a more effective judiciary," including the introduction of trial by jury; the end of lifelong, presidential appointments for judges; and the presence of an opposition member on the High Council of Judges, among other measures.
Monthly salaries have also been increased from 1,450 laris (about $840) for local judges to 4,100 laris (about $2,374) for a Supreme Court judge, according to the most recent data available. Courthouses are also being modernized.
Gia Kavtaradze, a former executive secretary of the High Council of Justice who served two years as justice minister under Saakashvili, contends that the reforms are missing the mark. "The vision before was [to make] fairer decisions. Logistics will follow. Today, the vision is logistics first, fairness will follow," Kavtaradze said.
The HSOJ entrance requirements in part reflect those priorities. Aside from a law degree and a passing score on a "judicial qualification exam," an applicant needs only five years of practice as an attorney – an amount of experience that visiting British judges find difficult to understand, HSOJ Deputy Director Rukhadze says.
Rukhadze argues that Georgia's urgent need for competent judges outweighs concerns about limited experience. "[W]hen you are a young country, with a young president, a young prime minister, a young central bank chief, you can have young judges because that is the only way for us to move forward at this point," Rukhadze said.
Ultimately, commented Civil Court Judge Diana Berikashvili, responsibility for judicial independence rests with Georgia's judges themselves. Being a judge, she said, requires "being brave."
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.