Freedom of information regulation not binding for courts?
When an individual or an organization like ours sends an official request for information to a Tbilisi court, the response these days is likely to be along the following lines: “The information you have requested requires a systematization and the development of an archive of cases, which requires a lot of time. The court operates on the basis of current legislation. Hence, the court’s office is busy carrying out its obligations prescribed by the law (…). Thus, the (requested) processing of cases and a major mobilization of administrative resources are not necessary for the activities of the court at this stage.”
This is the response we have received in at least five Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to courts in the capital – the Tbilisi City Court, the Tbilisi Appellate Court and even the Supreme Court of Georgia. Sometimes we have requested the decisions on large amounts of cases for analysis, but sometimes all we requested was no more than 20 or 25 decisions. However, the court’s response has always been the same.
If you look at the Georgian legislation on FOI, you find the obligation of public bodies (including all courts) to provide public information, with some exceptions that are prescribed by law (e.g. state secrets, personal secrets and commercial secrets). Therefore, courts are required by law to provide their decisions to whoever is interested.
The Supreme Court has not yet published decisions it has made earlier this year on its website. The court’s decisions do not set precedents and are not binding, but are nonetheless very important, as other courts aim to follow these decisions. Because we have not received satisfying answers on our FOI requests, we have not been able to analyze a number of cases we wanted to look into.
According to the rules of the Supreme Court's office, the chief of staff has to ensure the release of public information. There is also the position of a Head Consultant of the Internal Control Department who, among other responsibilities, has to ensure “the issuance of public information according to the law”. Similarly, the Head of the Department for the Analysis of Court Practice has this task in his job description.
We acknowledge that Georgian courts have fairly limited resources available and much of their paper trail has not gone electronic yet. However, in the responses we have received, courts did not even mention a lack of resources as the reason why our requests from information could not be answered. In a number of cases, the court did indicate to us what workload our requests would actually generate.
One better practice we have seen in Kakheti. There, Gela Mtivlishvili, a journalist who also works with TI Georgia, requested information from the District Court of Telavi. His request was rejected, and he appealed. While an administrator had handled his first request, Mtivlishvili’s appeal went to Head Judge of the District Court, who overturned his house's first decision and provided the requested information.