Before 1995, Georgia's legal system retained traces of the pre-Soviet era, the Soviet period, the Gamsakhurdia presidency, and the State Council period. Courts included district courts, a T'bilisi city court, a supreme court in each of the two autonomous republics, and at the highest level the Supreme Court of the Republic.
The 1995 constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, the judiciary is subject to some executive pressure and pressure from extensive family and clan networks. The Law on Common Courts, passed in 1997, establishes a three-tier court system. District courts hear petty criminal and civil cases. Regional courts of appeal have original and appellate jurisdiction. They try major criminal and civil cases, review cases, and can remand cases to the lower court for retrial. The Supreme Court was envisioned as the highest appellate court, but it also hears some capital cases and appeals from the Central Electoral Commission.
A constitutional court was set up in September 1996. It arbitrates constitutional disputes between the branches of government and rules on individual claims of human rights abuses. The court has demonstrated judicial independence in recent years.
Administration of the court system was transferred from the Justice Ministry to a Council of Justice in 1997, to increase the independence of the courts from budgetary and other influence. The council consists of four members from each of the three branches of government.
The constitution provides for the rights to presumption of innocence, to have a public trial, to legal counsel, and to refuse to make a statement in the absence of counsel. A criminal procedures code was approved in November 1997, and a new criminal code was passed in June 1999. The criminal procedures code aimed at reducing the dominant power of prosecutors over arrests and investigations. Under the new procedures, judges issue warrants for arrest and detention orders, and detentions must follow correct legal procedures, including informing detainees of their rights, allowing visits by family members and lawyers, and treating detainees without brutality. In mid-1999, however, some of the liberal strictures on defendants' rights were reversed at the insistence of the prosecutors, who continue to have a major influence over the courts.
Under the Law on Common Courts, Georgia has launched a system of testing judges on basic legal principles; many of those who have taken the test have failed. Georgia's accession to the Council of Europe in April 1999 led to new legislation taking jurisdiction over the prison system away from the Interior (police) Ministry and giving it to the Ministry of Justice.
According to the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001, the Georgian government's human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas. Police and prosecutorial abuses such as beatings of prisoners, forced confessions, denial of fair and expeditious trials, denial of timely access to counsel, and harsh prison conditions continued. The judiciary continues to suffer from corruption, ill-training, and political manipulation, particularly at the local level. Freedom of the press is generally respected, although journalists have been intimidated and subject to violence. Freedom of assembly was restricted as many peaceful gatherings were dispersed.