KAMPALA FRIDAY MAY 29, 2020: Stakeholders from government, legal service providers, the United Nations Development system, information and communications technology experts, development partners, academia, private sector and civil society from Uganda and beyond have called for expanded use of e-justice as a means to deepen access to justice. They also made a business case for e-justice as one of the innovative and practical measures to respond, sustain and accelerate the dispensation of justice in Uganda in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking during an online dialogue on the dispensation of justice in Uganda organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) Secretariat, the Austrian Embassy/Development Cooperation and the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda), participants observed that while the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges, it also presents opportunities to harness digital innovations to deliver justice. The dialogue also brought in experts from South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana to share perspectives from other countries in Africa.
“Today, more than ever, we should capitalize on information and communications technology, e-justice developments to scale up innovative virtual approaches for the achievement of equitable and sustained access to justice as well as accountable governance,” said Ms. Elsie Attafuah, the UNDP Resident Representative in Uganda, who hailed the good relations between the Government and the United Nations system in working towards achieving sustainable development in Uganda.
“The new normal created by this pandemic has propelled all of us into digital drive. That is the new reality.” Ms. Attafuah pointed out. She also underscored the importance of partnership between government, civil society, donor community, private sector and the academia as key to deepening and accelerating e-justice.
On his part, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Hon. Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, said that digitization is critical to Uganda’s efforts to achieve its development aspirations as enshrined in both Uganda’s Vision 2040 and the third National Development Plan (NDP III) which seek to mainstream ICT in all aspects of the country’s development.
“Transforming Uganda and achieving a middle-income status require both a strong judiciary and a very competitive economy, with ICT and innovations to propel the desirable growth,” he said.
ICT is also central in the ongoing justice reform with efforts aimed at yielding a modern, efficient, effective and responsive justice system that can withstand the current demands of COVID-19 and the long-term intent of the sector to reduce case backlog and improve efficiency, transparency and accountability.
Dr. Roswitha Kremser, the Head of the Coordination Office for the Development Cooperation, Austrian Embassy, Kampala, observed that e-justice will be the new normal with multiple benefits including speeding up processes, enhancing access to justice and making information transparently available to all Ugandans. She commended the Government of Uganda for effectively responding to the COVID-19 situation using a human rights-centered approach, stating “There were very strict guidelines for COVID-19 situation but the JLOS institutions flexibly and swiftly issued cutting-edge guidelines, including to allow video-facilitated court hearings for the first time due to directives of Hon. Chief Justice Katureebe, and in parallel H.E President Museveni even pardoned 833 prisoners to decongest prisons”. While fully embracing e-justice as the way forward, she noted that data protection and the prevention of a digital divide must frame the digitalization of the sector.
The use of audio and video conference facilities to deliver justice has enabled hearings and adjudication of cases at a time of restricted movement because of lockdown measures instituted to curtail further transmission of the disease.
The e-justice dialogue was held under the theme, “Post-COVID-19 and the Future of E-justice: Lessons, Opportunities and Strategic Direction.” The objectives of the dialogue were to reflect on approaches to deepen and accelerate the roll-out of e-justice initiatives that seek to automate business processes in the sector and lay ground for integration of systems among the JLOS institutions and harness digital solutions in light of the COVID -19 situation.
At the dialogue, panelists underscored the importance of the Justice, Law and Order (JLOS) sector to people’s wellbeing and in ensuring that people live in a safe and just society where they enjoy their rights. This is because an effective justice system provides a level playing field for all, including the most disadvantaged, to seek and obtain a remedy for grievances.
Challenges in access to justice have been exacerbated by the high cost of digital infrastructure and high population growth which have sustained an increased demand for expeditious delivery of justice services.
Ugandan justice institutions have in recent years leveraged technology in service delivery, the administration of justice, case management and adjudication processes in court proceedings. This includes the use of audio-video conferencing to hear cases and online records management.
Nonetheless, the administration of justice in Uganda is still faced with numerous bottlenecks. These include accessibility and affordability of internet which is a key enabler of e-governance as a whole. Other bottlenecks include a high case backlog, low staffing levels, high rates of pretrial detention, and gaps in the capacity of key justice actors to conduct investigations, apply key legal frameworks and respond to human rights violations including gender-based violence.
Liliane Byarugaba Adriko, the Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Association of Women Lawyer (FIDA-Uganda), said the use of audio and video conference facilities has been key in protecting victims of sexual and gender-based violence, “We are pleased with video conferencing because it limits the re-victimization of the victims,” she said.
“UNDP is happy to associate with these processes through its support to the Justice, Law and Order Sector institutions to roll out e-justice initiatives that aim at automating business processes,” Ms. Attafuah said.
UNDP’s support to the Justice, Law and Order Sector includes the establishment of the Judiciary’s customer feedback toll-free telephone facility and call centre; the rollout of the Criminal Records Management System of the Uganda Police Force in Kampala Metropolitan Area and the establishment of video and audio links for the Law Development Centre’s Legal Aid Clinic and provision of Zoom licenses which are supporting government business continuity, as well as support to multi-sectoral and integrated coordination of national response efforts to combat COVID-19 and its impacts.
Consistent with the message of leveraging digital technologies, this dialogue was held virtually, using Zoom platform. Speakers from outside Uganda included Mr. Brian Kagoro, Executive Director of UHAI Africa Group, South Africa; Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, Team Manager, Africa Program of Open Society Justice Initiative, Nigeria; and Prof. Raymond A. Atuguba, Associate Professor, University of Ghana.