Digital migration: Is Covid-19 a turning point for the Judiciary?

Senior officials in the Office of the Prime Minister appear before a judge at Buganda Road Court in Kampala via video teleconferencing on May 3. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

The undisputed truth is that the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed an upheaval of epic magnitude. But amid the global sufferings, several good things have emerged.

The emergence of coronavirus may be a turning point for the Judiciary as it has hastened its digital migration after years of procrastination.

Once Chief Justice Bart Katureebe rolled out court activities in March, it is understood the Judiciary moved to install Zoom technology for both its Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judges.

Although publically, the Judiciary paints a picture of a seamless process, privately, judges say it took a week for the 11 Supreme Court judges to acquaint themselves with Zoom video communications – a software platform used for teleconferencing, and telecommuting inter-alia.

The idea, we understand, is that since judges of the Supreme Court and those of the Court of Appeal, which doubles as the Constitutional Court, do not work individually but rather in panels, Zoom technology, considering the anti-Covid-19 measures against close human contact, would be the best platform for the judges to link up and discuss issues related to judgment writing, and administrative matters, among others.

For several years, Supreme Court justices have made it a habit to meet every Tuesday of the week and this has not stopped despite the contagious Covid-19 disease outbreak that quickly spreads through physical interaction of humans.
“We have been holding our Tuesday meetings as usual via Zoom,” Justice Stella Arach- Amoko, who is in charge of the administration of the Supreme Court, says.

“We have not missed any meeting since Covid-19 started. And in those meetings, we discuss many things beyond even cases we are handling. So technology has been helpful,” she adds.

The Court of Appeal has a different story, altogether. Although they have Zoom technology services, the judges are yet to test them since Deputy Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo has been in the countryside.

“By the time they installed Zoom, I had travelled to the village but once I am back, we shall start using it, “Justice Owiny-Dollo who heads the Court of Appeal, said in a telephone interview last Sunday.

Although his colleagues are still experimenting with this technology, Court of Appeal judge Geoffrey Kiryabwire has already acquainted himself with it, with no difficulties.

“Other judges probably haven’t used it but I have been using it [Zoom] to do my other work, but it depends on the kind of equipment you have. For me, it has worked well and we hope all Court of Appeal judges will start using it starting next week,” Justice Kiryabwire, who heads the Judiciary’s Information and Communication Technological committee and has been masterminding the Judiciary’s digital migration agenda, said on Sunday.

Technology and Covid-19
Not that the Judiciary’s move to use advanced technology is just a kneejerk reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic because by last year, Justice Katureebe unpacked the video conferencing at Buganda Chief Magistrates Court, which operationalised two virtual courts that were set up within the Luzira Prison complex – one in Luzira Upper Prison Male wing, and the other in the Women’s wing.

With the technology in place, Justice Katureebe came with practice direction under Legal Notice Number 6 of 2019, with the sole purpose of integrating ICT into adjudication processes in Uganda’s courts, which still strongly rely on pen and paper.

Section 5 of the practice directions stipulate that: “In every judicial proceeding, the court and the parties to the case may, as much as possible, use technology to expedite the proceedings and make them more efficient and effective.”

The technology envisioned in the document includes e-filing system and service of a document electronically; digital display devices, real-time transcript devices, video and conferencing; and computers at the table.

With such legal framework, the technology came in handy as once Covid-19 struck, and the Judiciary sought to limit physical interaction between the court goers, judicial officers and suspects facing criminal charges while on remand.
The bail applications of Gen Henry Tumukunde, embattled businessman Abid Alam and four officials of the Office of the Prime Ministers (OPM) who are accused deceitfully purchasing Covid-19 relief food, were heard from Buganda Road Court while the suspects were in prisons such as Luzira, Kitalya and Kigo prisons and this was only possible because of the video – conferencing technology.

In East Africa, Uganda seems to be playing catch-up as Kenya has expanded video conferencing to civil courts. In Uganda, the technology is still limited to only some criminal courts and judges’ meetings. As and when the Ugandan Judiciary decides to roll out the technology on large scale, it will be faced with similar logistical challenges currently undermining efforts to digitalise Kenya’s courts.

Uganda’s Judiciary will have to respond to issues such as the financial muscle to ensure the availability of serviceable equipment, dependable Internet connectivity and technical support; capacity of court users to understand and use the technologies, the application features and the new procedures required. Justice Kiryabwire recognises as much.

“Internet connectivity,” Justice Kiryabwire said, “Is a big issue but we have since advised that if we are to use this technology, lawyers and courts have to use routers, not the usual data off their phones.”

Kiryabwire said lawyers, just like judicial officers, also need to up their game if the technologies are to work seamlessly.
“Lawyers have laptops but do those laptops have the cameras needed when zooming?” Kiryabwire asked. “They have smartphones but do those phones have the required Apps for zoom?”

To answer some of the queries, Onyango of Onyango and Company Advocates said starting May 20, his law firm will commence training interested lawyer in practical aspects of using technology in providing legal services and virtual law systems in Uganda and across Africa.

Crucially, the biggest challenge facing Judiciary’s digital agenda is the low Internet usage, with the world Internet statistics showing that out of 42 million Ugandans, only 19 million use the Internet.
No wonder, in the practice directions, Justice Katureebe gave some latitude for use of the tried and tested analogue format.

Lawyers not left behind

With digital migration taking a foothold in the judicial system, private lawyers have-not been left out. Onyango and Company Advocates recently launched what they termed as virtual operations, which ostensibly will offer clients convenient and unique ways to access legal services through online platforms. The virtual operation will enable the firm’s clients to use technological means to consult online and purchase legal documents using Mobile Money and visa payment platforms.
“The firm has put in place a secure and safe online environment on its website through which clients can, in privacy, consult our lawyers and buy a wide range of legal documents,’’ explained Onyango Owor, the firm partner in charge of strategy and growth.
Owor represented petitioners who successfully challenged the repeal of Section 8 of the Public Order Management Act in the Constitutional Court. He added: “The lockdown due to Covid-19 has meant that people cannot access legal services and those that can face difficulties due to restrictions on movement. The new product from our firm addresses these challenges and harnesses the opportunities provided by technological tools to make legal services accessible to clients from the comfort of their homes and offices.”