Monday, May 04, 2020

One of the prominent lessons in this time of unchartered, COVID-19-infected waters, is that remote systems that ensure business continuity and efficient service delivery are key.

On 19 March 2020, the Ugandan Chief Justice issued guidelines suspending court appearances for 32 days, following earlier presidential guidelines on the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19. The Chief Justice directed that: courts would only adjudicate urgent matters, parties needed to file written submissions regarding cases in advanced stages, and judgments or rulings would be delivered online or via email where possible.

When a lockdown was declared on 30 March 2020, further restrictions were announced including a ban on public and private transport. This led to further scaling down of court activities and made filing and service of court documents virtually impossible barring all but over-zealous lawyers and clerks willing to ride their own bicycles or motorcycles to court.

This does not bode well for a country beset by a significant case backlog. One solution is technology. Although Uganda has embraced the Court Case Administration System (CCAS), this is a back-end solution accessible only to court staff and not the general public. A well-organized electronic case management system (ECMS) that provides support and automation (from the filing of documents, to case management, presentation of some types of cases, determination, and archiving) could be the answer.

Luckily, the regulatory framework in Uganda is favourable to this in so far as the Electronic Transactions Act 2011 and the Electronic Signatures Act, 2011, facilitate and recognize electronic signatures, records and transactions.

Certainly, commendable efforts have been made to ensure business continuity during lockdown including email and WhatsApp notifications to legal practitioners by the Uganda Law Society partnering with the judiciary to use zoom technology in adjudication of urgent matters.

This is pursuant to the Judicature (Visual-Audio Link) Rules, 2016 (SI 26 of 2016) and the Constitution (Integration of ICT into the Adjudication Processes for Courts of Judicature) Practice Directions, 2019.

Although these are a step in the right direction, the rules and practice directions do not provide for a comprehensive ECMS, and the use of video link has been restricted to bail and a few hearings.

According to Erwin Rooze, an international expert on projects in the justice area, ECMS would go a long way in reducing the paperwork burden and improving timeliness, transparency, accountability and efficiency.

Other meaningful benefits include more efficient data entry and retrieval, enhanced Bar and public access as well as expeditious recording and resolution of cases.  Further, cases of ‘missing files’ and ‘personal favours’ for late filing would be minimized since the automated system would only be open during prescribed business hours.

How would this system work? Uganda can borrow some lessons from other jurisdictions that have effectively continued to operate during times of social distancing. For instance, in England, hearings are being conducted remotely.

In our neighbouring country Kenya, the Chief Justice recently issued the Electronic Case Management Practice Directions, 2020 providing for electronic filing of cases, bail hearings and judgements via video link.

In South Africa, the Office of the Chief Justice implemented an online system called CaseLines in certain divisions of the High Court. The system enables litigants to file and upload pleadings and other documents electronically from which attorneys and the courts are able to access the relevant case online. Pursuant to the lockdown in that country, the Judge Presidents of the various divisions of the High Courts have recommended that where possible hearings are done remotely.

If implanted in Uganda, an ECMS would encourage lawyers to be more efficient, timely and tech ‘savvy’. Service would be effected through registered email addresses, following which the system would auto generate service notifications thus minimizing instances of rejection or late service. Lawyers would also be able to schedule client and other meetings through virtual platforms (such as zoom, skype, google hangout among others) so as to continue to work and push cases through.

No doubt, ECMS requires significant resource allocation, digital literacy as well as receptiveness and a positive attitude from all players, but the efficiency gains would make it worth the while.

It has been said that justice delayed is justice denied. It is high time that the Ugandan courts progressed to allow for a well-coordinated ECMS, which is as much a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic as it will be the new normal thereafter.