Rights lawyers challenge Judicial Amendment Bill; says provisions may hinder right to fair trial

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By Darlington Gatsi 

THE Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) says provisions in the proposed Judicial Laws amendment Bill may hinder full access to justice as they infringe on fair trial.

Parliament, through the Portfolio Committee on Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, yesterday began public hearings on the Judicial Laws Amendment Bill in Harare.

The bill seeks to amend the Constitutional Court Act, Supreme Court Act, High Court Act, Administrative Court and Labour Court to adopt virtual sittings, subject to the consent of parties involved.

ZLHR representative, McDonald Moyo, said while the bill is welcome as it is in line with incorporating technology, it may hinder the full hand of justice to prevail.

“We believe as Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights that this initiative for the proposal to introduce virtual sittings to the proceedings of courts in Zimbabwe is a welcome initiative. They enhance access to justice, notably in situations of public health emergency.

“However, we should be mindful of the fact that the use of technology in virtual courts may result in adverse human rights implications.

“In criminal cases for example, the conduct of the proceedings should, as far as possible, reflect in-person trials, ensuring the right of fair trial protected under section 69 of the Constitution is respected. Accused persons should be able to produce all evidence without obstacles,” said Moyo.

The bill was necessitated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic,  which resulted in some cases being shelved as some courts closed due to the spike of the disease.

Moyo also raised concern on the feasibility of the bill in catering for marginalised communities.

“The bill is silent on the number of participants allowed during proceedings and whether observers can be part of the proceedings.

“Marginalised populations who are not familiar with technology must  also be accommodated in line with the right to equality.

“The virtual court must be accessible to mobile devices such as phones to enable those without access to computers to get access,” he said.

If the bill passes the public hearing, it will go through the Parliament and Senate for scrutiny before being accented to by the President.

However, concerns at the hearings were snubbed by the public as there was low turnout of people.

Acting Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Justice Legal and Parliamentary affairs, Innocent Gonese, said the technicalities associated with the bill may have dissuaded people from participating.

“We have a situation where we are dealing with a technical bill and as such members of the public are not particularly well versed with the provisions,” said Innocent Gonese.