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Coronavirus emergency: challenges for the justice system

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The states of emergencies established in many countries to provide conditions to protect societies in the fight against the impact and proliferation of the coronavirus, respond to an extraordinary and grave situation which is endangering the life of millions of people around the world. This public health crisis will not end immediately.

This extraordinary situation poses special threats and challenges to the justice systems as a whole around the world – including judges, prosecutors and lawyers – and to its effectiveness and independence.

The economic impact of the pandemic and the extended regulations on lockdown or stay-at-home orders are dramatic and severe. Especially for the poor, migrants, women, detainees, children and other groups at risk. But also for the institutions themselves. Among them, specifically the day-to-day functioning of something crucial for any society as the judiciaries, considering the impact of the pandemic and of the lockdown on judges, justice workers, prosecutors and lawyers.

This is already severely affecting its functioning and threatening the right of societies to an operative and independent judicial system. In this context, the lack of access to an independent justice opens doors to abusive behaviors and to a context favorable to impunity.

The actual critical situation demands specific urgent actions to prevent blockages of the justice systems and to guarantee now a functioning and independence justice. As Special Rapporteur on Independence of Justice and Lawyers of the United Nations I call the attention on seven crucial aspects:

  1. Increased support and guarantees for a functioning independent justice is urgent, bringing it closer to the people by encouraging creative steps to guarantee this. The health crisis is eroding economic and social stability, context in which a functioning judiciary is more essential than ever.
  2. An immediate streamline -to the essential- on the services being provided by the justice systems on certain matters that may be considered a priority is an urgent decision that must be taken by an independent judicial system, broadly understood. Considering the current global crisis and the institutional and budgetary constraints, in many countries this is an urgent and inevitable option so to prevent social exclusion and to guarantee protection of human rights.
  3. The temporary reduction of demand on the justice systems on matters that may not be considered a priority in this critical situation, like prosecutions of minor offenses, civil or economic cases, could be postponed in this streamlining process.
  4. Matters  oriented to protect rights, when serious crimes are committed (including corruption connected to this crisis) and caeses of domestic violence should receive prior attention and space.
  5. Where and how to report abuses, using current online technologies must be addressed and urgently implemented. Innovation and online working is essential, especially by tribunals and judges that have to deal with human rights or a growing insecurity situation that is being envisaged. Lockdowns and “social distances” shouldn´t prevent the judicial system from acting and following due process guarantees. What in other contexts may have been envisaged within a gradual and lengthy process, now appears as an urgent priority that demands institutional decisions and priorities in the assignation of resources.
  6. High levels of incarceration with huge and unbearable amount of detainees, affect human rights standards and increase the risk of the prison´s population and staff of being infected with the virus. In several countries, for instance, prisons are filled with person under pre-trial detentions. Effective steps should be taken immediately so that pre-trial detentions are applied only in extraordinary and specific. As well, that the pertinent responsible bodies review the situation of persons imprisoned for political reasons, minor offenses or that are close to finish their conviction terms. Immediate and effective actions are needed in processes in which the judiciary, governments and the legislative have their responsibilities and challenges to act.  
  7. In this context, judges, magistrates, public prosecutors and their staffs need to be put in conditions to perform their functions. They deserve special health attention in testing programs considering that they necessarily will be in contact with several individuals and groups.