The Commonwealth’s secretary-general has hailed the “mini-revolutions” taking place in criminal justice systems across the globe which are combatting backlogs in court cases caused by the pandemic.
Baroness Patricia Scotland highlighted new working practices, like video calls replacing physical hearings, that have strengthened access to legal proceedings in the Commonwealth.
She said “innovations and mini-revolutions” had been taking place in justice systems during one of a series of Rule of Law webinars organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the institution’s civil service.
She added: “The closure of courts in some countries has necessitated the rapid adoption of new technology.
“It has also required all actors in our justice systems to move away from the idea that justice can be delivered only in courthouses.
“In many cases changes are here to stay, and there is need for increased use of technology. There is no going back to how we did business before.”
Access to justice has been affected across the globe by the pandemic which has forced courts to close and cases suspended, or seen proceedings take even longer – all leading to a backlog.
There have also been worrying trends, like a surge in domestic violence across the Commonwealth and spikes in online child abuse and cybercrime also linked to the pandemic.
Speaking during a web conference Justice Joel Ngugi, a judge in Kenya’s High Court, reported a “stupendous” uptake in video-conferencing and other technologies and that Covid-19 had accelerated digitalisation and “courts have gone almost completely virtual”.
This has led to justice being speedier and less costly for many people, thanks to measures such as video hearings and the electronic servicing of documents.
Justice Ngugi said: “We are seeing the slow death of procedural formalism in the law. Things that people have held as sacrosanct, we are seeing those dying.
“This will be the greatest impact of the pandemic on our justice system.”
Other positive initiatives in the Commonwealth include a legal hotline in South Africa and a free app for women in Uganda to seek advice.
The Rule of Law webinars have brought together chief justices, attorneys general, academics, international experts and heads of Commonwealth partner organisations.
They have discussed the enormous problems faced by justice systems, but have also shared knowledge and best practices for upholding the rule of law in the context of the pandemic.
Justice Gillian Lucky, from the Court of Appeal of Trinidad and Tobago, and Justice Bernard Turner, from the Supreme Court of the Bahamas, highlighted during the final webinar how judge-only trials had become more widespread during the pandemic.
The secretary-general also highlighted measures the Commonwealth had taken, such as the Commonwealth Says NO MORE campaign that confronts domestic and sexual violence.