The Republic of Georgia is in the South Caucusus, situated between Turkey and Russia, with a long coastline along the Black Sea. Its history spans over 2,500 years and the Georgian language, unrelated to others in the region, is one of the oldest living languages in the world. Georgia was absorbed into Tsarist Russia at the turn of the 19th century and declared its independence in 1918, just after the Russian Revolution. Three years later, the Red Army invaded and Georgia was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991 and in 1992, became a member of the United Nations. Georgia’s parliament adopted a new constitution in 1995 and four years later adopted legislation establishing the structure of the court system.
Georgia is a democratic republic with a civil law system. Its government has implemented a number of significant judicial reforms over the years, including the introduction of more transparent methods for judicial selection, judicial self-governance, improved training, a code of judicial ethics, and a system for investigating and sanctioning allegations of misconduct.
Georgia has a three-tier judiciary with twenty-five first instance courts, two appellate courts (one in the capital Tbilisi and the other in Kutaisi), and a supreme court. Georgia’s constitutional court is independent from the general jurisdiction courts.
The supreme court is the highest court of appeal. It has seven chambers, each of which hears cases in three-judge panels: civil, administrative, criminal, a Disciplinary Chamber, a Grand Chamber, Chamber of Qualification, and a Plenum. The Disciplinary Chamber reviews appeals from disciplinary judgments issued by the lower courts. The justices in other chambers may refer a case to the Grand Chamber, which has 9 justices, if the case presents a particularly complex or unusual legal issue. The Chamber of Qualifications hears appeals brought by judicial applicants who contest their rejection by the High Council of Justice.
The Plenum is tasked with protecting judicial independence and building trust and confidence in the judiciary. It is composed of supreme court justices, including the Chairperson, as well as the chairpersons of the two courts of appeal. The Plenum has the authority to appoint three members of the Constitutional Court, file recommendations to the Constitutional Court about a normative act, approve the Supreme Court’s rules of procedure, and endorse the rate of monthly supplements paid to justices. The Plenum is not required to publish its decisions. A minimum of twenty-eight justices serves on the supreme court. They are nominated by the High Council of Justice and elected by a majority of the members of Parliament. Justices have life tenure with a mandatory retirement age of sixty-five. The Chairperson (chief justice) of the Supreme Court is nominated by the High Council of Justice and elected by Parliament for a single, ten-year term.
The Common Courts
Courts of Appeal
The two courts of appeal in Tbilisi and Kutaisi hear appeals of civil, administrative, and criminal cases. They also have an investigative panel that examines appeals when authorized to do so by legislation or the criminal procedure code.
District (City) Courts
The district and city courts are courts of first instance. Each court has at least two judges, one who hears criminal cases and one who hears civil and other types of cases. A district or city court with more than two judges may be assigned additional specialized judges, for example, judges to preside over insolvency matters. Decisions regarding specialization are made by the High Council of Justice.
Common court judges are appointed by the High Council of Justice. With certain exceptions, a candidate must be a citizen of Georgia, at least thirty years old, hold a master’s degree or equivalent, have five years of legal experience, speak Georgian, pass the judge’s qualification exam, complete the training course at the High School of Justice, and be entered on the Justice Trainee Qualifications List. After a three-year period of probation, judges receive life tenure, with a mandatory retirement age of 65.
The Constitutional Court reviews the constitutionality of laws and protects constitutionally-defined human rights. It reviews disputes regarding international treaties, activities of political parties, and elections. The court also resolves constitutional disputes between public institutions and participates in certain impeachment proceedings. The judgements of the Constitutional Court are final. There are nine constitutional court justices. Three members are appointed by the President of Georgia, three are elected by Parliament, and three are appointed by the Supreme Court. Justices serve for a term of ten years.
High Council of Justice
The High Council of Justice (HCOJ) was created in 1997 with eight members, mostly political figures, including the minister of justice and prosecutor general. The HCOJ’s mandate and membership has undergone many changes over the years, with significant reforms in 2005, 2007, 2013, 2017, and 2021.
Although initially HCOJ authority was limited to advising the president on matters concerning the judiciary, its powers have expanded considerably. In 2007, the HSOJ was decreed an independent entity. Its responsibilities now include the appointment and dismissal of first and second instance judges, oversight of the judicial examination process and training, drafting rules governing court organization, judicial reform initiatives, quality and efficiency measures, and public outreach. The judiciary is administered by the Council’s Department of Court Management. In 2017, an independent inspector’s service was established within the Council to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct. In 2021, the Council was given authority to submit candidates for the supreme court to parliament.
The HCOJ has 15 members, including nine from the judiciary (the chief justice and eight judges elected by the Conference of Judges). Representatives from the executive and legislative branches no longer serve on the HCOJ. All non-judge members are drawn from academia, the bar, and non-profit organizations; five are appointed by parliament and one by the president. Except for the court’s chairperson, members serve four-year terms.
As the powers of the Council have expanded without corollary oversight, critics note that unchecked external influences can have signficiant and detrimental impact on the judiciary’s integrity and independence.
Conference of Judges
The Conference of Judges is a biannual meeting of all Georgian judges. The Conference has a permanent staff that supports the work of its committees. The committees are tasked with fulfilling its broad mandate: protecting and strengthening the independence of the judiciary, promoting increased confidence in the courts, and enhancing the reputation of judges. The Regulations of the Conference (its governing principles) are recommended by the High Council of Justice and approved by a majority vote of Conference membership.
High School of Justice
The High School of Justice was established in 2006 to provide professional training for judicial candidates, sitting judges, and other court staff. It has funding from the government and receives additional support and technical assistance from foreign governments and international organizations.
Georgia introduced jury trials in 1919; this reform was abandoned when it became part of the Soviet Union in 1921. The right to trial by jury was re-introduced in a 2004 constitutional amendment, Article 82. Jury trials were made part of the criminal code in 2009 as a component of the government efforts to promote fair trial principles, enhance public confidence in the judicial system, and introduce an adversarial criminal justice model. Jury trials were first introduced in Tbilisi and limited to cases involving aggravated homicide. The system has since been expanded to seven Georgian cities and thirty different types of crimes, including cases against political figures. However, due to limited funding, the use of jury trials in Georgia is not widespread.
Georgia has introduced many legal reform initiatives over the past 20 years. In 2007, the parliament introduced new insolvency legislation to enable more efficient liquidation of insolvent corporate entities and businesses as well as distribution of assets to creditors. The limitations of this initial legislative framework led to calls for new legislation that complies with international best practices. In response, the Ministry of Justice proposed new legislation that went into effect on April 1, 2021. The new law focuses on reorganization of the corporate debtor and preservation of jobs while retaining liquidation for non-viable companies. It modernizes the insolvency process with reforms that include simplifying procedures for opening a reorganization, providing priority rankings among secured creditors, allowing unsecured creditors to vote on a reorganization plan, requiring the use of professionals to manage or supervise a reorganization, allowing the court to approve a plan over the objection of a group of creditors (cramdown), and shortening timelines.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia
The Public Defender of Georgia is an independent entity that advises the government on human rights compliance and monitoring. It assesses whether national laws, policies and practices are in accordance with international human rights norms, including those addressing the rights of children and persons with disabilities, as well as the prohibition of torture and discrimination. As explained on the Public Defender’s website, it is required to:
- Provide feedback on statements and claims by the citizens of Georgia, foreign citizens staying in Georgia, persons without citizenship and NGO-s, dealing with violations of rights and freedoms set forth by the Constitution of Georgia and law, international treaties and covenants, to which Georgia is the party.
- Check whether human rights and freedoms are violated at places of detention, pre-trial detention and other places of arrest.
- Run civic education campaign in the field of human rights.
The Public Defender also has authority to bring cases to the Constitutional Court and can serve as an amicus curiae in all levels of the judiciary. In June, 2023, it filed an amicus petition to the Tbilisi City Court challenging law enforcement’s classification of protesters as “law breakers.” The petition argued that the non-violent demonstrators were engaged in constitutionally protected freedom of expression.