Covid-19 pushes courts to new era

23 Jun 2020 9:08 am

How COVID-19 has pushed courts into a new era

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technology – and South Africa’s courts have not been left behind, despite the legal profession’s reputation of being slow to embrace new ways of working.  

The country’s courts had already begun to take some measures recently to move into the digital age, with the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ) having embarked on an exciting journey of developing an end-to-end e-filing system for the High Courts. But COVID-19 has quickened the pace of adoption and fast-tracked take-up among legal practitioners who are now navigating an uncertain world in which legal challenges are increasing almost on a daily basis.

Virtual or remote court operations are especially important now, given that directions issued by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services to address, prevent and combat the spread of COVID-19, essentially restrict entry into courts and court precincts unless for urgent and essential matters, and only permit persons who have material interest in a case.

Here are six ways South African courts are tapping into opportunities for innovation and development within the legal system and judiciary.

  1. COURT ONLINE is an advanced cloud-based collaboration solution encompassing a Digital Case Management and Evidence Management system. It provides legal practitioners with the opportunity to file documentation electronically online anywhere and anytime without being physically present at court. It also affords them the ease of managing their court appearance diaries and court evidence instantaneously online. Benefits include minimised paper flow and storage, shortened case processing time, greater convenience and efficiency, reduced physical movement and fewer queues within the court.
  2. CaseLines is the COURT ONLINE Evidence Management Application. On 10 January 2020 the Judge President Mlambo, issued a practice directive for the full implementation of the system and this took effect in Gauteng from 27 January 2020. The system broadly functions by way of case creation, party/legal representative invitation, document filing and uploading and case presentation. It enables litigants to file and upload pleadings and other documents electronically and to present their case and argument during Court proceedings, with Judges given the opportunity to efficiently and securely prepare and review evidence online and follow evidence presented digitally during the court hearing. Matters now heard by the High Courts must be presented exclusively on CaseLines, with judges refusing to hear matters that have not been registered with, or documents uploaded, on the system. CaseLines allows Judges and legal teams the opportunity to efficiently and securely prepare, collate, redact, share and present evidence/ legal bundles, documentary and video evidence in a single online system.
  3. Video conferencing technology has also been adopted by South African courts to ensure that the legal system does not grind to a complete halt during the COVID-19 pandemic and national extended lockdown. However, while some courts have embraced technology to ensure legal work can continue, others have taken a more conservative approach.
  1. Alternative dispute resolution forums have continued to run at full functionality during the lockdown. Arbitrations are now being held virtually, with the Arbitration Foundation of SA introducing measures guiding their conduct. There may be an increase in the number of disputes that are referred to and resolved by way of ‘virtual’ mediation.
  2. Remote consultations are now accepted as fair. Whilst it is preferable to have face-to-face consultations, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen remote meetings become the “new normal”, in the interest of preserving health and safety and maintaining social distancing. The Labour Court recently held that the Labour Relations Act (LRA) does not prescribe the form in which the consultation process is to take place. Thus, consultation meetings via Zoom are fair against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new normal in which we find ourselves.
  3. Sixteen courts across the country are benefitting from Wi-Fi connectivity made available by LexisNexis to give judges, magistrates and legal practitioners at South Africa’s pre-eminent courts easy access to legal information, saving time and aiding efficiency as they oversee some of the nation’s most important legal proceedings. The LexisNexis Wi-Fi project, endorsed by the Department of Justice, was pioneered in 2012. To date the courts equipped with Wi-Fi infrastructure and mobile access to legal content have included the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, nine High Courts and five Magistrate’s Courts.

COVID-19 has indeed been the catalyst needed to catapult the country towards paperless digital courtrooms which will allow judges and lawyers to work more effectively in a secure online and virtual environment. Tapping into technology can only improve the role of the courts as guardians of South Africa’s Rule of Law.

To access further insightful guidance around running a successful virtual working environment, visit the LexisNexis Virtual Working Resource page: https://www.lexisnexis.co.za/news-and-insights/virtual-working

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