The current crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, not only a health crisis, but a socio-economic one, poses tremendous threats to our lives and communities, yet at the same time opens up avenues to imagine and test on the ground “a new possible”. This happens also in the area of justice. Since March 2020, the enforcement of lockdowns has affected also the justice sector, disrupting the routine daily operations of the courts.
Nevertheless, the demand for justice has not decreased; on the contrary, the number of people’s justice problems is increasing rapidly as they lose jobs and run into difficulties paying bills and debts; a steep increase of business disputes related to bankruptcy and insolvency is expected, while domestic violence cases are already on the rise in several countries. For example, in Singapore, the Association of Women for Action and Research women’s helpline saw a 33% increase in calls related to family violence in February compared to the same period last year. In Malaysia the Talian Kasih hotline introduced to provide counselling and assistance to women and children who are experiencing abuse and are in need of protection, recorded a 57% increase in reported abuses during the lockdown.
COVID-19 is putting a lot of pressure on justice systems, already affected by backlog of cases and a deficit of public trust in the institutions. The Task Force on Justice, in 2019, reported that globally 1.5 billion people fail to resolve justice problems, deterred by cost and complicated procedures, a lack of trust that they will be treated fairly, or a lack of justice services that are able to meet their needs. Currently, the pandemic is worsening this justice gap, which will further exacerbate existing inequalities. Poor and vulnerable groups will be the most affected by the health and economic consequences of covid19. Furthermore, according to UN estimates, nearly half of the world population (46%) have no access to the internet: a problem that needs to be addressed even more urgently than before. With courts turning to digital tools to make access to justice possible during the pandemic, those penalized by the digital divide may be left excluded.
Justice leaders will need to multiply their efforts to ensure access to justice for all, partnering with a variety of actors to make sure that they rapidly adapt to this evolving situation and meet the essential and urgent needs of the population seeking justice.
This is the occasion for justice systems around the world to adopt a people-centered approach to justice, to remove barriers to innovation and technologies that can revolutionize the way in which justice is delivered, to establish open, inclusive, fair, and accountable justice systems that works closely with health and other sectors, that make people their partners and inspire trust in the institutions.
International experiences show that courts that were already adept to digital technologies and open justice, such as the Court of the City of Buenos Aires in Argentina, are able to respond more rapidly and effectively to the challenges posed by covid19. Furthermore, they are turning this crisis into an opportunity to enhance their accountability and measure their performance. For instance, inviting participants in the virtual hearings to assess their use of plain language.
In ASEAN, Singapore State Courts were among the first to get organized providing online services and guidance to court users, as well as the Philippines Supreme Court.
Overall, it is evident that the challenges are still many. Therefore, now more than ever, is the time for leaders of the justice systems to reach out to each other across borders to share experiences, good practices and capacity, and to collaborate on innovation. To facilitate this exchange, UNDP’s Judicial Integrity Network in ASEAN, supported by the US and UK Governments, is organizing a series of webinars to support courts in fostering innovation, discussing challenges and presenting possible solutions.
The first of the webinars, “Justice in times of COVID-19” will be held on 28 May at 10 am ICT and will feature a keynote speech by Hon. Sundaresh Menon, Chief Justice of Singapore. Other speakers include Hon. Azahar Mohamed, Chief Judge of Malaya, Hon. Judge Andriani Nurdin Vice President of the High Court of Jakarta and Hon. Midas Marquez, Court Administrator of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. The discussion will be moderated by Hon. Justice Tilakawardane, Acting Chief Justice and Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka (retd.)
The list of upcoming webinars of the Judicial integrity Network in ASEAN is accessible here.
For further information please contact Liviana Zorzi, Project Specialist at UNDP Bangkok regional hub.