Zimbabwe

Covid-19-hit JSC mulls virtual courts

Chief Justice Luke Malaba

Nyore Madzianike

Senior Court Reporter

At least 31 members of the Judiciary, with two of them in critical condition, have been hit by coronavirus, prompting the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to plan on establishing virtual courts.

Officially opening the 2021 legal year yesterday, Chief Justice Luke Malaba said the Judiciary had not been spared the wrath of Covid-19, with one officer having succumbed to the pandemic last Tuesday.

“To this end, plans to introduce virtual court sittings are at an advanced stage. The process involves presentation of submissions by litigants and parties to disputes without them being required to be physically present at court.

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“This digitalisation of the courts and their processes has already been adopted and is in use in other jurisdictions in the region and beyond. We must as an institution see beyond the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

In its continued fight against corruption and inefficiency, last year the JSC recommended two judges to the President to have tribunals to investigate alleged acts of misconduct while five magistrates were dismissed for corruption, inefficiency and incompetency.

This year’s theme is “Ensuring an Efficient and Effective Judiciary”, which the Chief Justice said resonated with the Government’s National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1).

“The recent upsurge in cases and the emergence of a stronger and more infectious variant of the virus calls for everyone to remain vigilant and comply with health guidelines issued from time-to-time by health authorities to slow down the spread of the disease,” he said.

He said the Judiciary had not been spared by the pandemic, which claimed the lives of some of its staff members.

Chief Justice Malaba said the JSC would thrive to maintain efficiency at the court during the Covid-19 pandemic as the courts are mandated by the law to resolve disputes brought before them.

“Public confidence in the Judiciary is cultivated and maintained when those appearing in courts see that those charged with judicial functions are conscious of the obligation to deliver justice or provide services efficiently and effectively. A judicial system that is inefficient, is not effective,” he said.

Members of the Judiciary are expected at all times, to do the right thing by adopting and following the legally prescribed procedures in the administration of justice.

“Requiring a judicial officer to deliver his or her decision promptly cannot be interpreted as interference with the independence of the judicial officer concerned. He or she is being asked to do what constitutes the content of the objective for which judicial independence is guaranteed by the Constitution.

“Failure to act efficiently and effectively is failure to act in a manner that exhibits an understanding of the rule of law governing one’s conduct. Judicial independence does not shield the bearer thereof from being held accountable to the standard of efficient and effective performance of the duties prescribed by the law for the benefit of the intended receivers of the service,” he said.

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CJ Malaba said the JSC had put in place measures that monitor performance and output of judicial officers by developing a Performance Management System for its non-judicial staff and magistrates that formulated Key Result Areas for every member.

The JSC will also introduce an Integrated Electronic Case Management System with the tender processes have been finalised.

CJ Malaba said the process was set for completion last year, but the winner of the tender pulled out of the contract at the last minute.

“The first phase of implementing the system will involve the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Commercial Division of the High Court. The refurbishment of Bristol House, which will accommodate the Commercial Division of the High Court, is almost complete. Bristol House is expected to be officially opened in April 2021.

“The setting up of the IECMS will immediately follow, as the court is earmarked to be the first paperless court in the country,” said CJ Malaba.

The JSC is planning to establish a Judicial Training Institute in collaboration with the University of Zimbabwe this year.

In assessing the court’s performance, CJ Malaba said the backlog for the legal year 2020 decreased by 76 percent. Constitutional Court’s workload decreased by 61 percent compared to the previous year.

The High Court received 6 259 less cases as compared to the previous year.

Despite challenges faced during the Covid-19 period, backlog at the High Court went down by 2 212 cases with clearance rate pegged at 92 percent.

Cases received at Labour Court declined from 2 125 in 2019 to 1 469 in 2020 recording a 30,9 percent decline. Completed cases also declined by 34 percent.

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In 2020, the Labour Court completed 88 percent of the total workload.

Administrative Court had 82 percent clearance rate carrying 16 cases into the year 2021.

“In the Magistrates’ Courts, the lockdown measures affected both the number of cases received and those completed in the courts. Even after the lockdown was partially lifted, it remained very difficult for witnesses to attend court for trials. The majority of criminal cases are heard in this court.”

This led to the courts placing accused persons on remand, causing very few cases to be finalised since there were no trials.

“This caused the increases in the backlog of criminal cases at most of the courts.

“Processes in the civil court are litigant driven. Due to lockdown induced travel restrictions, the court received 52 655 cases less than in 2019. It also completed 52 850 cases less than in 2019.

“The backlog went up by a marginal 41 cases. The Criminal Court had 4 939 cases as at 1 January 2020. It received 24 564 cases less and completed 25 141 cases less than in 2019. The backlog increased by 1 208,” he said.

HERALD