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OPINION: COVID-19 and the administration of justice in Uganda

High Court building in Kampala High Court building in Kampala

 

By Timothy Lumunye

In line with the standard public health guidelines, Uganda had to institute a partial lockdown of the country when it was confirmed that there was an outbreak of COVID-19 within the country. When the lockdown was instituted only “essential” services were allowed to operate, those deemed basic and yet indispensable without which the nation would collapse.

Indeed the COVID-19 pandemic means we are wading in uncharted waters. But with no vaccine in the near future and with the number of patients increasing by the day, there is no way of predicting how long the lockdown will be in force, or how long it will take for judicial work to return to “normal”. This article therefore examines existing interventions in the administration of justice, challenges and how the pandemic presents an opportunity for access to justice through LC Courts.

 

Current efforts by the Judiciary

The Judiciary was listed as an essential service but would only hear remands, urgent mentions, bail and other very pressing interlocutory applications. Court registries were directed to stay open but only for the purposes of filing new suits. Even then extreme social distancing was to be practiced by all participants to the court process. To mitigate this, the Chief Justice issued the “Guidelines for on-line hearings in the Judiciary of Uganda”. The Guidelines indicate that online hearings may be used for inter alia, delivering of judgments and rulings, plus the hearing of bail applications, mentions and interlocutory applications. Attendance/participation is by invitation through a Judiciary provided link. The hearing of these matters is not exclusively limited to the online option though and in some cases, advocates and parties appear in person before the judicial officer.

These efforts are building upon a foundation set by other recent Judiciary interventions.  For example the installation of a Video Conferencing Facility between Buganda Road Court and Luzira Maximum Prison (Male and female Wing), Kigo Government prison and Kitalya Government prison.  Initially it aimed at handling cases at mention stages especially in very sensitive cases that require a high level of security where transporting the accused persons to Court may cause security threats to the entire public or unnecessary cost.  

 

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Editor's Note: The writer is a Magistrate Grade 1, Courts of Judicature. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

 

Published: May 18 , 2020