European Court considers whether Georgia restricted access to courts for financial gain through fees
On 25 April 2016, the European Court of Human Rights communicated the case of Kerdikoshvili v Georgia to the Government for its observations. The case concerns the refusal of Georgian courts to reduce or cancel their fees which were payable by the applicant as he sought enforcement of a lower court’s decision to award the return of his goods that had been unlawfully confiscated. The applicant, Balo Kerdikoshvili, is represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (Tbilisi).
On 24 March 2007, Balo Kerdikoshvili purchased a large amount of alcohol with an intention to resell it. The Financial Police Department seized the cargo and transferred it for storage to a warehouse in Gori, a city near the South Ossetia border. The seizure of these goods was later found to have been unlawful by Gori District Court, which ordered their return to Mr Kerdikoshvili. However, the Gori Tax Inspection Office refused to return the goods because of an alleged looting of the warehouse where they had been stored during the August 2008 armed conflict between Russia and Georgia. In April 2009, the applicant filed a request with the Tbilisi City Court (the Court) to claim compensation. He also requested that the Court fee of 3,000 Georgian Laris (GEL) (approx. €1,400) be waived in light of the financial losses he sustained due to the events in question. Alternatively, he requested that the court fee be reduced or deferred. These requests were rejected and the case was dealt with only after the payment of the Court fee.
On 8 July 2011, the Court found that due to the August 2008 armed conflict the authorities were not at fault for the looting of the storage facility or the loss of the cargo. Mr Kerdikoshvili sought to appeal to the Tbilisi Court of Appeals (Court of Appeals) and again applied for the waiver or reduction of the Court of Appeals’ fee of 5,000 GEL (approx. €2,325) due to his difficult financial situation. The Court of Appeals rejected his requests for financial assistance and refused to examine the appeal. Mr Kerdikoshvili’s appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected without addressing his key arguments.
In his application to the European Court, Mr Kerdikoshvili submitted that the non-exemption from the payment of prohibitively high court fees placed a financial burden on him and violated his right of access to a court, under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). He also submitted that no reasonable grounds were cited in the refusal to exempt him from the payment of the court fees. He argued that the sole aim was to generate income for the State budget by collecting excessive court fees. He further submitted that the inability to receive damages for the loss of his unlawfully seized goods breached his right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions under Article 1, Protocol 1 ECHR.
The case highlights shortcomings regarding access to justice in the Georgian courts system, as the applicant was unable to access the higher courts due to prohibitively high court fees. The Government’s response to the European Court’s questions must be lodged by 17 October 2016, after which Mr Kerdikovshvili will be given an opportunity to respond.