Jacob Mutisi

His Excellency the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe 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.

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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 start making changes brought by COVID-19 and the changes driven by the introduction of the new technologies, taking place.

For those that have been arrested and await for 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 skeleton staff and  only attending to urgent bail hearings and guilty pleas proceeding.

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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 pandemic.

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

With the continuous increase of COVID-19 infections, 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Those in the justice system do not want to return to the nations archaic and outdated court business model that was the norm before the outbreak of coronavirus.

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Zimbabwe justice system should start the planning for the future now. We have a justice system that is already over-stretched to the 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 create a 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 court whose role is to accept the electronic filling, try cases via live-streaming and allow make payments using electronic payments, mobile money payments, and online payments.

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.

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Our courts should eliminate paper and become paperless, almost one million sets of documents were filed in Harare’s courts last year, with 100 per cent of them on bond paper in this age of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

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 on-line legislation and case law are only some examples that will spurge judicial administration in Zimbabwe and beyond. ICT can be used to enhance efficiency, access, timeliness, transparency and accountability, thus helping judiciaries to provide adequate services. 

The current traditional way of Zimbabwe justice administration is inefficient, wasteful, and archaic way of doing business and pandemic has present an opportunity to review and relook at the way we administrate 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 jails is now a death sentence, all it requires is one person to contract COVID-19 and it will spread like wild fire in our detention centre around the country. Zimbabwe’s jails and prisons are filthy, overcrowded, and populated by some of our communities most vulnerable people.

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In short, our jails and prisons are overflowing with people who should not be incarcerated, but our ruling party adopted the Rhodesian justice system, which they are 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 have 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.

If you need any further details please do not hesitate to contact me on +263772278161.

Regards

Engineer Jacob Kudzayi Mutisi