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OPINION - Access to Justice and COVID-19: Inmates on remand worst hit

Luzira maximum prison in Kampala (PHOTO: JLOS) Luzira maximum prison in Kampala (PHOTO: JLOS)

 

By Timothy Lumunye

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is now a global health emergency, affecting more than a billion people worldwide. In more and more countries, normal life has effectively been suspended, as sweeping measures are introduced to control the spread of the disease by way of ‘lockdowns’, bans on social gatherings, and the closure of public facilities. These measures have also had an impact on criminal justice systems, as access to courts and prisons has come under severe restrictions. The administration of justice cannot come to a total standstill, whatever the circumstances.

It is essential that the Justice, Law and Order Sector continues to carry out essential functions, including the processing of criminal cases, and safeguarding the rights and welfare of accused persons, especially those who are on remand.

The accused persons on remand should be able to participate in criminal justice proceedings in person, and it is especially crucial that they are physically present in the courtroom during trial. This is not possible currently, because of the restrictions imposed by Uganda Prisons, in line with the standard public health guidelines.  The accused absence from the courtroom seriously undermines their ability to participate in criminal justice proceedings effectively, and the exercise of the rights of the defence.

Its high time Uganda Prisons came up with measures to enable inmates on remand attend court proceedings and prevent an unprecedented backlog of cases that could harm the effective administration of justice in the future.  This can be done in a phased manner, by opening up first, less congested Prison facilities. 

The Judiciary has taken extraordinary measures to keep criminal justice systems operational, preventing lengthy delays in criminal proceedings, and ensuring that urgent matters, such pre-trial detention hearings, are not postponed. The Judiciary does not however work in a vacuum and relies on other stakeholders in the Justice, Law and Order Sector (such as Police, Prisons, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions) for it to be effective. With these stakeholders also substantially limited by the lockdown and other COVID-19 related restrictions, court business has literally ground to a halt, in as far as access to justice for accused persons on remand is concerned. 

 

Timothy Lumunye is a Grade 1 Magistrate at Nateete Rubaga court

 

Published: 24th March 2021

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