Judge, High Court, Ghana
Before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Ghana, I was already yearning for the annual legal vacation. The new legal year had just begun and there were judgments to be delivered, trials to be completed, and new ones to be conducted, not to talk of the endless stream of applications being filed each week. It was going to be business as usual, until out of the blue, our lives were completely disrupted by the realization that this virus was closer to home than imagined.
The Chief Justice’s response to the COVID 19 pandemic was to direct trial judges to enforce strict case management techniques in the court room alongside social distancing as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19. These included; allowing only parties whose cases were scheduled for hearing into the court room to avoid large gatherings; adjourning cases to specific times on given dates to limit the number of people allowed into the court room at a time; exercising great restraint in remanding accused persons in order to avoid overcrowding in police cells and prisons; and, dealing with only urgent matters. What constituted “urgent matters” was a matter for interpretation by each judge until this discretion was taken out of the hands of judges when the nation entered into the partial lockdown phase.
In Ghana, the lockdown was not nationwide. It was enforced in the Greater Accra and Greater Ashanti Regions, the most populous regions in Ghana. During that three-week period, most of the courts in the affected regions were closed leaving just a handful to handle mainly cases involving breaches of the lockdown regulations. That such cases were recorded might be an indication that the seriousness of the pandemic was lost on some.
However, the importance of capacity building to hold remote court hearings was not lost on the legal fraternity at all. Indeed, before the COVID 19 pandemic, the catch phrase was: “it is Digi-time” I first heard this phrase from Ghana’s Communication Minister when she delivered a speech during the launch of the E-Justice system and situated it within the wider framework of Ghana’s E-transform Project.
The E-Justice platform, which has been operationalized in the Law Court Complex in Accra and is soon to be rolled out in other courts nationwide, has introduced an electronic case filing system which dispenses with the physical filing of court processes. Other novelties are the E-docket, a digital copy of the physical docket which contains all processes filed in a matter and can be accessed remotely from the comfort of one’s home, E- Cause lists which dispenses with the physical presence of lawyers or their clerks at court premises to check on dates scheduled for their cases and an all new digital and paperless working environment that most judges, lawyers and court staff are still adapting to.
The implementation of the E-Justice system has not been without challenges. For example, it is accessible where there is internet connectivity and whenever there is network failure, the system cannot be accessed. Meanwhile, the electronic process service is yet to be perfected. Also, the Direct Transcription System whereby court proceedings are recorded and simultaneously displayed on monitors for viewing by the judge and lawyers in a case, may have done more in exposing the need for the Judicial Service to hire and train skilled court recorders in producing accurate record of proceedings.
Notwithstanding the challenges with the implementation of the E-justice system, it is clear that there is no turning back. The evolution which began slowly (and now being hastened by COVID-19) must take pre-eminence over traditional ways of doing business to the point where physical gatherings may no longer be necessary in the adjudication of disputes. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts already had the technology for taking evidence during a trial via video-conferencing, a technology which I have used in one of my trials effectively. Therefore, it is fair to say that to a large extent, the Judicial Service, by exploiting technology as a means of enhancing justice delivery has laid the foundation for surviving COVID-19 and life thereafter.
However, there is more to be done to keep abreast of the times. At the time of writing this piece, I have already read on social media that a court in Lagos, Nigeria, has held court proceedings online. This is commendable. Going forward, there may be the need to amend existing legislation to support the operation of virtual court proceedings and to consider, for instance, the use of google maps in the expeditious resolution of land disputes.
The implementation of full scale virtual court proceedings will also have challenges of its own which include; huge data and equipment costs, massive capacity building of court staff to handle the full automation of court processes and equipping all stakeholders in the justice delivery system with the know-how to navigate the digital realm with ease. All these may lead to a blurring of normal working hours which may impact work-life balance. Thus the Judicial Service needs to manage the change process as seamlessly as possible.
In his article entitled: “Equipping the Judge for E-Justice: The answer is Change Management” Justice Constant Hometowu, a Justice of the High Court of Ghana states that “… change is inevitable, resisting change is myopic, allowing change to pass by without embracing same is anachronism, allowing change to work for one is wisdom and gain and finally the only thing that does not change is change itself.” The COVID-19 pandemic has come to re-enforce the need to embrace change as it is certain that the world will not be the same again— and the Ghana Judicial Service must keep up with the changes.
 Published in “The Bench”, A Journal of the Association of Magistrates and Judges of Ghana, 2019, Volume 1 page 48.