Facing down injustice in the age of a pandemic

June 25, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on justice systems all over the world. Courts are closing, reducing or adjusting their operations, affecting justice services, especially for marginalized groups.

Structural inequalities are exacerbated as the economic fallout of the crisis unfolds and legal problems related to detention, employment, housing, and debt are on the rise. Risks of violence against women and children have increased, especially as many of us are confined at home. As we move to address some of these unprecedented challenges, the crisis also presents an opportunity to rethink how to ensure access to justice for all.

UNDP and UNODC recently launched a guidance on Ensuring Access to Justice in the Context of COVID-19 which attempts to unpack what it means to safeguard timely, fair and effective justice as countries grapple with different stages of the crisis. The report reflects on how the crisis is affecting justice systems and points to a range of entry points to uphold human rights and adopt a people-centred approach to justice issues emerging due to the pandemic.

First, the COVID-19 crisis has compromised justice. Groups that have faced discriminatory obstacles in the past now face even greater challenges.  

For people in detention, in addition to health risks, there are many issues related to prolonged imprisonment or pretrial detention due to postponed hearings or limited access to legal aid.  In South Sudan, for example, UNDP has prioritized supporting the National Prisons Service with advice as well as information and communication materials to raise awareness among inmates and guards on the spread of COVID-19, alongside supporting national prosecutors and judges to expedite the decongestion of prisons and police detention cells through the application of the laws on bail and parole including through use of remote hearings and providing protective equipment.  

The data also indicates that gender-based violence is rising during the lockdown period and there is an urgency to address justice for women. At a minimum, courts need to be able to prioritize and hear urgent cases such as those related to gender-based violence. This needs to be complemented by preparing for an increase in demand for emergency hotlines, shelters, essential housing, legal aid, and police and justice services.  In Fiji, UNDP is working with a civil society organization, Empower Pacific, to provide counselling and referrals including for gender-based violence. However, in many places the delays affecting the justice system are also impacting the ability to seek accountability. In DR Congo, COVID-19 has for now meant the suspension of investigation and prosecution efforts to address conflict-related sexual violence.

Second, the oversight role of the judiciary is critical to make sure international human rights standards are respected during emergencies.  Emergency regulations should be proportionate, non-discriminatory, time bound, strictly related to the contagion and subject to review. In Lebanon, Ukraine, Yemen, Kyrgyzstan and Zambia, UNDP is supporting new standard operating procedures and guidelines for law enforcement to guarantee accountability and people-centred approaches to protect and uphold human rights while enforcing COVID-19 related restrictions.

Third, the crisis offers an opportunity to innovate. How can we better deliver justice and embrace digital transformation? As the justice sector puts in place business continuity plans, including for remote functioning, we can learn from this and identify what to retain in the future to better enable access to justice through technology.

While seizing the opportunity to modernize the judiciary, a conscious effort must be made to harness technology to make sure that no one is being left behind the digital divide. In Pakistan, UNDP with the Peshawar High Court is establishing 14 virtual courts to ensure expeditious disposal of civil and criminal cases and provide opportunities for lawyers, parties and witnesses to join court proceedings through video. In Serbia, UNDP helped in setting up virtual meetings of police, prosecutors and social workers to expedite handling of cases of domestic violence and in Montenegro, UNDP together with the government developed a ‘Be safe’ mobile app that enables victims of domestic violence to quickly request help.

Equally important will be to put in place adequate privacy and security protection for users.

In both Ukraine and Montenegro, UNDP is providing policy advice to the national authorities on privacy and data protection in deployment of COVID-19 digital solutions.

Innovations and partnerships with bar associations, civil society, and the private sector to improve legal aid and assistance and rights awareness will be fundamental to delivering quality justice services to all. As an example, UNDP in Kyrgyz Republic has partnered with the private pro bono lawyers and tech companies to provide online free legal aid and support to survivors of sexual violence during quarantine.

Finally, the long-term impact of the crisis accelerates us towards a tipping point. We need build an inclusive social contract. COVID-19 has exposed glaring inequalities and inequities. It has highlighted that without protecting the most marginalized and furthest behind, no one is safe. As people feel the brunt of both the public health and socio-economic impact of the crisis, the demand for meaningful change is rising, with worldwide movements demanding equality and social justice.

People are asking who has justice, who is denied justice, and on whose terms these judgements are made? A ‘new normal’ cannot simply restore justice services to their previous state. We need to reimagine how justice can truly be accessible and uphold the rights of people who have long experienced injustice and discrimination in order to secure a more inclusive social contract.