Best time to improve justice administration

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PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa has been releasing prisoners following the COVID-19 outbreak to ease the spread of the pandemic.

In Zimbabwe, there is now a sense of renewed urgency among the Judiciary administrators for justice reform in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Zimbabwe justice system should start planning for the future, and it cannot be business as usual following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Given the nature and importance of the Judiciary as the second pillar of the State authority after the Executive, it is important that our justice system immediately starts making changes brought by COVID-19 and driven by the introduction of the new technologies.

For those that have been arrested and await justice, it has been a lifetime, but only a month has passed since the nation’s courtrooms, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, closed their doors to most cases.

Zimbabwe’s justice system is running on a skeletal staff and only attending to urgent bail hearings and guilty plea proceedings.

History tells us that our justice system was designed to function with in-person appearance and physical documents, which are now not ideally suited for these times of the pandemic.

With the current lockdown set to expire during the first week of May and there has been no direction from the courts about what will happen once the justice system resumes duty, this places the justice system in a major crisis.

With the continuous increase of COVID-19 local infections in the country, physical distancing measures are likely to continue for the foreseeable future and there is no doubt that it will be a long time before things return to normal.

Those in the justice system do not want to return to the nation’s archaic and outdated court business model that was the norm before the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Zimbabwe’s justice system should start planning for the future now.

We have a justice system that is already over-stretched to breaking point and marked by unacceptable delays before the pandemic.

It is this overburdened system that will, somehow, need to accommodate the rescheduling of thousands of court dates that were cancelled because of COVID-19.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel, the immediate introduction of remote appearances will save the judicial system time, money and free up courtrooms to deal with more serious cases.
Countries like China have set up video courts, whose role is to accept electronic filing of cases, try cases via live-streaming and allow payments to be made using electronic, mobile money and online platforms.

COVID-19 has taught us that all of these physical attendances were mostly unnecessary.

There is no question that in-person appearances will continue to be necessary for trials and complex matters, but the simple stuff can and should be done remotely.

Our courts should become paperless. Almost one million sets of documents were filed in Harare’s courts last year, with 100% of them on bond paper in this digital era.

The rapid development of ICT opens up new opportunities to significantly improve the administration of justice.

The availability of web services, the use of electronic filing, the electronic exchange of legal documents, the possibility of online legislation and case law are only some examples that will spur judicial administration in Zimbabwe and beyond.

ICT can be used to enhance efficiency, access, timeliness, transparency and accountability, thus helping the Judiciary to provide adequate services.

The current traditional way of Zimbabwe’s justice administration is an inefficient, wasteful, and archaic way of doing business and the pandemic has presented an opportunity to review and relook at the way we administer our justice.

The justice system cannot return to the outdated status quo. Using ICT, the judicial administrators should be planning to turn our justice system into digital paperless systems.

Going to jail is now a death sentence, all it requires is for one person to contract COVID-19 and it will spread like wildfire in our detention centres around the country.

Zimbabwe’s jails and prisons are filthy, overcrowded, and populated by some of our communities’ most vulnerable people.
In short, our jails and prisons are overflowing with people who should not be incarcerated, but the ruling party adopted the Rhodesian justice system, which is gradually changing.

During these times of COVID-19, our justice system should not waste resources on jail for non-violent offenders.

Historical evidence has proved that there is little utility in incarcerating, usually without any treatment, people who have addiction or mental health problems.

It is cruel and wasteful and government has been paying millions of dollars a year to fund an ill-conceived lust for over-incarceration in Zimbabwe’s justice system.

There is no better time for the justice administration process to digitally transform than
now.

Jacob Kudzayi Mutisi is a political commentator. He writes in his personal capacity.