Government institutions experienced an unexpected shock from the COVID-19 coronavirus disease’s arrival in late 2019 and took a wide range of measures to mitigate its health, socioeconomic, and work-related risks. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 disease a public health emergency of global concern on January 30, 2020, and a global pandemic on March 20, 2020. This incident resulted from the number of infections rising in most countries in early 2020. As a result of the outbreak, public institutions could not perform their intended functions, including improving the economic well-being of the people they serve. It is vital to comprehend that although several affairs needed the attention of the judiciary system, COVID-19 played a role in changing the judiciary’s operations.
The Role of COVID-19 in Changing the Judiciary’s Operations
The judiciary is one of the most significant governmental institutions for promoting social and economic well-being and welfare maximization. The court ensures that the rule of law is upheld by resolving conflicts. Legal institutions are necessary to protect and enforce the contractual agreements essential for competitive market activity and to protect and enhance the basic freedoms of all people. As a result, any event that has the potential to impair the rule of law and hence the core function of a judicial system would be detrimental to the institution. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it forced lawmakers to pass a slew of new legislation to ensure the continuity of the activities of the judiciary system in an efficient manner. Such measures involved using technology to avoid physical or face-to-face meetings that could increase the spread of the disease.
Due to the threat posed by COVID-19, human rights violations have occurred worldwide as the disease spread. Individuals, groups, and government agencies are concerned about each country’s ability to maintain the rule of law throughout the epidemic and prevent arbitrary abuses of civil liberties. With the pandemic spreading, governments have taken various measures to limit its impact on the healthcare system. With varying degrees of savagery and at different times, lockdowns, movement restrictions, and social isolation have been employed (Barua, 2020). Courts and legal aid groups have been forced to use technology to restrict face-to-face contact with their clients. It has been difficult to maintain normal access to justice throughout this outbreak as a result of limited resources and makeshift measures. Current uncertainty threatens judicial systems and legal aid organizations and will certainly last for some time. The economic crisis caused by social isolation policies has already raised the prospect of cuts to legal aid budgets in the country.
For two weeks, starting on March 16, 2020, all court proceedings were suspended to allow for consultations and the development of measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Due to a certificate of urgency, the courts were required only to hear cases considered to be of the utmost importance. Restrict plea deals to only involve serious crimes, and limit public court appearances (Miller & Blumstein, 2020). As part of the effort to reduce congestion in the prison system, judges and other judicial officers were tasked with evaluating the conditions of bail for those placed on remand and other eligible instances identified by the prisons. The jail and prison population decreased due to this approach, with fewer admissions. In addition, the President of the Court of Appeal convened an inter-agency team of members of the justice sector to keep tabs on the pandemic situation and provide regular advice to the judiciary on essential preventative measures.
Only those who were required to present by judges or other court workers would have physical access to the building. All pending court decisions and rulings had to be completed during this period of fewer court appearances. All judgments, rulings, and orders were to be delivered through email, with the date of transmission regarded as the date of receipt. When the decision, judgment, or order was delivered through email, the parties had the right to request a period during which execution might be postponed. All parties were expected to promptly notify of court orders when granted a chance for applications.
Judges, lawyers, and clients have interacted with the current restrictions due to the pandemic, where the judiciary has continued to boost its use of technology during the pandemic. Electronic case filing (e-fling) was introduced to reduce the number of interactions between litigants and court workers and improve access to justice during the pandemic (Baldwin et al., 2020). A practice note on e-filing business cases was released to combat the epidemic in the Business Justice Sector. The use of video conferencing, electronic case management, and teleconferencing was maximized. The judiciary published a study on e-payments, which contained instructions for court users on submitting e-Service requests. As a result of the epidemic’s impact on the mediation process, the courts have lately published guidelines for its usage as a virtual court-annexed mediation. Providing the URL to court sessions at least 24 hours before the hearing’s start was another attempt, as was making the cause list available online for the benefit of all parties (Baldwin et al., 2020). Additional computers were given to the courts to make use of technology easier.
A variety of personal protective equipment (PPE) was delivered to the courthouses in June and August of 2020 to maintain the level of service and prevent the spread of infection. Hand sanitizers, hand soap, face masks, social distance labels, and thermometers for checking the body temperature of persons entering the courtroom were some personal protective equipment (PPE). Purchase supplies from other government agencies to cut down on time, ensure quality, and use framework contracts as the best practice for new procurements if necessary. Additional court trips were avoided due to audit suggestions on fee assessment, receipt, and registration automation. Furthermore, legal library administration rules have been released. While the pandemic was sweeping the country, the Judiciary Training Institute had to alter its schedule.
The Civil Justice Council (CRJ) provided an email contact list, which instructed court users to use it to communicate with courts. There was to be a visible display of the court’s email address on the premises. Email and mobile messaging applications were used to send court documents and proceedings. Arguments from other parties and advocates had to be stamped, scanned, and emailed to them (Baldwin et al., 2020). Customers’ visits to court registries were reduced due to structures created by court registrars during the epidemic to separate registration responsibilities and allow full staff participation. To keep the general public up to date on the numerous changes that were taking place, the registrars disseminated information and made educational and communication resources available to them. During the pandemic, online meetings were held to discuss service delivery with station directors and deputy registrars.
The restrictions have reduced accessibility and availability of legal advice with a higher impact of a reduction in disproportionate advice. This challenge has mostly affected people of low income. The pandemic’s economic climate has resulted in a hike in the price of legal advice. Acquiring a lawyer for low-income people has been extremely hard. Other individuals have lost jobs due to the pandemic’s influence on the economy, making it hard for them to access legal advice.
Highly urgent public health actions are being prioritized to counteract COVID-19. To respond to gender-based violence against women and international human (GBVAW) occurrences, law enforcement agencies are more likely to focus on social distance monitoring, quarantine, and other associated measures (Miller & Blumstein, 2020). Civil unrest, looting, and other types of crime may become more prevalent due to the economic and social consequences of COVID-19 reactions in areas with a poor rule of law and limited resources. For example, the legal process has been suspended or postponed, preventing urgent judicial protections like protection orders and creating a backlog of cases that have long-term effects on criminal justice responses to GBVAW.
Limiting women’s access to the few resources that are accessible may be curtailed or deleted, such as additional services, crisis centers, hotlines, a lawyer, shelters, and victim protection services. Police stations had made it more difficult for women and girls to report GBVAW or seek legal or other types of protection due to the lockdown procedures that had been put in place. As a result, they had a more difficult time reporting abuse or dialing hotlines because they shared a home with their abusers.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the functioning of the judicial system and life aspects in several ways. Consequently, the pandemic has affected the normal functioning of the judicial system. There were restrictions put in place due to the crisis, such as social distancing, lockdowns, movement restrictions, and social isolation. Lawmakers have been forced to devise different methods to ensure courts’ operations continue effectively. Such measures involved using technology such as e-filling to avoid physical or face-to-face meetings that could increase the spread of the disease. There was an increase in video conferencing, electronic case management, and teleconferencing. The pandemic has caused other impacts, such as reduced prison and jail populations and limited access to resources for women and the poor.
Baldwin, J. M., Eassey, J. M., & Brooke, E. J. (2020). Court operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45(4), 743-758.
Barua, S. (2020). Understanding Coronanomics: The economic implications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Journal of Developing Areas, 55(3), 435-450.
Miller, J. M., & Blumstein, A. (2020). Crime, justice & the COVID-19 pandemic: Toward a national research agenda. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45(4), 515-524.