Commonwealth countries have shared how innovation has been the difference between keeping the wheels of justice turning, and legal systems coming to a grinding halt.
Legal experts from across the Commonwealth and partner organisations met virtually to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the rule law-the first in a series of webinars on this topic.
The meeting underscored the significant impacts of the pandemic on justice systems across the Commonwealth. Whether large or small, virtually all have experienced backlogs, delays, and face long-term consequences, requiring member countries to reconsider how to deliver access to justice to all.
A report from The Global Access to Justice Project Report found only eight per cent of justice systems continued to work normally during the pandemic. The vast majority (92 per cent) of judicial authorities delayed or suspended all non-urgent matters.
Moreover, limited resources and improvised solutions undermined the capacity to maintain normal levels of access to justice in just over half of the countries analysed. The report was based on data from 51 countries, including 17 from the Commonwealth.
During the discussion, Secretary-General Patricia Scotland outlined the range of ways in which the Commonwealth Secretariat is working to improve access to justice for women, repealing discriminatory legislation and assisting member countries with updating their legal frameworks to combat violence against women.
She said: “The Commonwealth Secretariat has partnered with the NO MORE Foundation, which is a global movement of 1,400 allied organisations and 40 international chapters working together to stop and prevent domestic violence and sexual assault.”
The Attorney-General of Jamaica, Marlene Malahoo Forte, emphasised the importance it is of upholding the rule of law at all times and how, to ensure this, even after most other services were shut down Jamaica’s court systems had continued to operate.
Solutions discussed included the use of ICT technology for e-courts, enabling remote access to legal information and advice, and finding alternative sentences to imprisonment.
Brian Speers, President of Commonwealth Lawyers Association, added that the legislature in each country must ensure any emergency powers that governments take during the pandemic are proportionate and targeted at only at responding to the health emergency. They should also be reviewed on a regular basis. Justice Charles Mkandawire, President of the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association, emphasised this point and stated that “We must ensure that as we make laws during this period, we consider the most vulnerable members of our society.”