Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgians Split on Jury Service Plan

Some say the government could have brought in far more effective judicial reforms.
By Shorena Latatia

Georgians from next month will serve as jury members in a controversial step the government hopes will increase public trust in the court system – though not everyone is sold on the idea.

Georgia has previously used the Soviet system where a bench of three judges passes verdict on defendants, but now serious cases will be heard before a jury of 12 ordinary citizens.

“From October 1, you are the judge,” say regular television commercials on all the main channels.

For two years, juries will only operate in Tbilisi at serious murder trials. From October 2012, they will be implemented all over the country for all crimes that carry custodial sentences.

Acquittals at jury trial cannot be appealed, while convictions can be challenged in the appeals court.

“The main duty of the jury members is to assess the facts, for which they do not require any particular professional experience,” said Konstantin Kublashvili, chairman of the Supreme Court.

Jury members will have their costs paid, and do have the right to withdraw from the case if they have a good reason. Certain professions – soldiers, lawyers, psychologists and more – do not have the right to be jurors, and jury members have to speak Georgian perfectly.

The authorities are hoping that in the main the move will boost civil society. “Being a jury member is a duty, but a very honourable duty,” said Zaza Meishvili, deputy chairman of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court.

The jury system has not been universally welcomed, however, despite the government’s and the judges’ enthusiasm.

“As a lawyer and a politician I do not support the introduction of jury trials to Georgia. I think that introducing this in the 21st century, when it has lost its reason for existence even in countries that have it, is unfounded and risky,” said Tinatin Khidasheli, a lawyer and leader of the opposition Republican Party.

“As a politician, I think that the authorities want to pass responsibility for illegal court decisions onto the people. Previously, the authorities were blamed for illegal decisions, but now ordinary people will be blamed.”

Zaza Khatiashvili, chairman of the Association of Lawyers, said the government could have brought in far more effective reforms.

“Instead of creating jury trials, it would have been better if Georgian courts took decisions in accordance with the 6th article of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a fair trial. [Jury trials] are justified in countries that have a strong civil society, but our country is not ready for this,” he said.

He said the law establishing the jury system does not give prosecution and defence in a case comparable powers. As things stand, the former can ask for extra investigations or searches, the latter can’t.

“Because of this there is a risk that the defence will be worse prepared than the prosecutors. And if the defence cannot show enough evidence, the jury members have to put their hands up and bring in a guilty verdict,” he said.

But the backers of the project do not agree with such gloomy assessments. They say that the introduction of jury service will help create a strong civil society.

“The introduction of juries will boost citizens’ activity and their adoption of objective decisions which will in turn be one of the routes to the development of democracy,” said Kublashvili.

“The country needs citizens who will take critical but objective decisions. With the [jury system] Georgian citizens’ scepticism about courts’ decisions will be changed. They will see with their own eyes what a responsibility it is to be a judge, to hear the positions of both sides and their opinions will become more positive.”

The split in opinion over the jury system extends to ordinary Georgians as well.

“I’m glad that Georgia is introducing jury trials. Although I don’t think it’s right that lawyers and psychologists can’t be jurors. The very fact that members of society can take part in the dispensing of justice is very important,” said David Mshvildadze, a 25-year-old lawyer.

“For me, a verdict imposed by 12 jury members will be more authoritative than one imposed by judges. However, it’s important to remember that to have a fair decision, we need to choose jury members correctly. If we do not do that, the verdict will be unfair.”

But other Georgians were less optimistic that 12 people could come to a fair decision.

“I like the institution of a jury, but I don’t think it’s right to introduce it in Georgia. Our society does not have the legal knowledge yet to decide if some one is guilty or not. And apart from that, if our courts are free, why add an extra 12 jury members? And if the court isn’t free then what guarantee do we have that the jurors won’t be pressured by prosecutors,” asked 20-year-old-student Mariam Oziashvili.

“And that’s leaving aside the fact that Georgia is a small country and everyone knows each other.”

Shorena Latatia is a lawyer at the Human Rights Centre in Tbilisi.