Savings lives or serving justice

By Georges van Montfort, Resident Representative, UNDP Zimbabwe

February 5, 2021

Societal systems that have been established, proven and operating for decades, centuries in some instances, have been made useless in just over 12 months by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite initial attempts to return to our normal ways, the virus remains a formidable challenger.

Zimbabwe has gone into a second lockdown as infection cases have taken a sharp turn upwards and the threat of another variant of the virus looms.

Many segments of society are beginning to set aside traditional systems for new ways of working.

The justice sector has been grappling with the fundamental question: how do you achieve a delicate balance between the need to protect human lives (from COVID-19), against the need to promote and protect human rights and deliver justice?

Globally, justice systems have faced closures, postponement, or operating with minimal staff. In Zimbabwe, COVID-19 prevention measures have amplified already existing challenges with case back logs and limitations in access to justice services. Travel restrictions make it difficult for litigants and witnesses to attend court hearings.

Unwittingly, the COVID-19 pandemic and related prevention measures present an opportunity for to innovate the justice delivery system.

As the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) set in motion their strategy for the next five years, the Chief Justice, Justice Luke Malaba echoed the same sentiments noting that automation and digitisation of courts and court processes is no longer a choice and needs to be sped up in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One such innovative idea is a virtual court system. A virtual court system is a conceptual idea of a judicial forum that has no physical presence but still provides the same services that are available in courtrooms. Access to virtual courts is provided online, and through videoconferencing and teleconferencing. This conforms to COVID-19 regulations, and at the same time makes sure justice is served.

In addition to responding to the COVID pandemic, the virtual court process is an initiative designed to deliver speed and efficiency improvements to the justice system. In the traditional process, litigants are expected to appear in person at a court. In a virtual court system, they appear by means of a secure video link while remaining physically located in their homes, offices or detention facilities for accused persons.

Virtual courts would also bring other positive impact to Zimbabwe’s justice system: they can contribute to reduction in cases back log, reduce cost of litigation and make the justice system more accessible to the public.

Consider the following: 34-year-old Thomas is being held in remand prison and awaiting trial as lockdown restrictions are implemented. It could take long before her trial is concluded as courts adhere to COVID-19 mitigation measures. She is denied a resolution to her case within reasonable time, her legal representation costs are increasing, and she faces the risk of exposure to the corona virus. However, when virtual courts are implemented, Abigail would only need to be in a room within the remand prison that is virtually connected to the courtroom and her trial can proceed. Lengthy delays are avoided, and a speedy resolution is ensured.

In addition, virtual courts could potentially reduce scheduling conflicts between cases and would solve the current challenge of transporting accused persons to and from courthouses.

In this regard, UNDP Zimbabwe is supporting the JSC to establish virtual courts across the country’s ten provinces. An initial investment of $1.4 million will see courtrooms and prisons fitted with equipment to enable many cases to move to virtual courtrooms. It will also enable court and prison procedures and systems to be reviewed and updated in line with this innovation. Actors in the justice system who will interface with virtual courts such as judges, prison officers and lawyers will also be trained accordingly.

As the country continues to fight the pandemic, this is one example where Zimbabwe does not have to make the difficult choice between saving human lives and delivering services.