UNDP supports The Gambia‘s efforts to increase Access to Justice, the delivery of quality justice and security services to citizens. One of the main challenges facing the Rule of Law sector is case backlog, particularly for remand prisoners and the consequential impact on the Prison Services. With a total of 621 inmates, more than half of the prison population are on remand. Even before the impact of COVID-19, it was imperative to decongest the Prisons.
The COVID-19 outbreak combined with the poor sanitation facilities and overcrowding of the Remand Wing of Mile 2 Prison raised a red flag of the Prisons becoming an epicenter or super spreader of the virus. To decongest the Remand Wing, the UNDP initiated a partnership with the Judiciary for the establishment of Virtual Courts.
In this regard, the Chief Justice established an Interagency Task Force (IATF) to review legislative or constitutional impediments for establishing a Virtual Court. The IATF was comprised of the Judiciary (Chair), Ministry of Justice, the Police Force, the Prisons Service, the National Agency for Legal Aid, The Gambia Bar Association, the National Drug and Law Enforcement Agency and UNDP. Several consultations were convened with recommendations on piloting and a position paper on the legislative and Constitutionality of the Virtual Court submitted to the Office of the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice approved the establishment of 2 Virtual High Courts for civil and criminal cases and issued Practice Directives to the stakeholders.
The first Virtual Court hearing was held on Wednesday, 10 June 2020. A total of 55 cases have been heard, 13 criminal matters and 42 civil matter as of 15 July 2020. The cases of detainees are heard daily before two Virtual High Courts per day. The Chief Justice is considering adding two more High Courts per day, totaling four to the Virtual Court and extending the pilot to the Magistrate level.
Virtual Court Hearing showing: High Court Judge, Defense Counsel, inmates, Court secretary and UNDP observer
Based on an assessment on ICT needs for the operationalization of the Virtual Court with partners, UNDP provided facilitated Internet access for the Prison Service and the National Agency for Legal Aid to facilitate engagement with the Virtual Court. UNDP through its AccLabGM, provided technical support including ZOOM to the IATF team, installed equipment at the Prisons Service, completed connectivity tests to ensure the internet connection for the Virtual Court is adequate for proceedings.
ZOOM platform was made available for participants to the Virtual Court and connectivity ensured for the Prisons so that inmates could be present in Court virtually. Additional IT material and furniture were also provided through the supported Prison Legal Aid Desks which were already outfitted with desktop computers, desks and chairs in Mile 2 and Jeshwang Prisons.
Preliminary Virtual Court hearing
The emergence of the virtual court system in the Gambia would significantly transform the Judiciary especially court proceedings. In the past, many Court cases were adjourned for a longer period due reasons such as absence of a Judge, logistics constraints in transporting detainees to the courts and prosecutors caught up in other official matters. With the current virtual court deployment, Judges can preside over cases virtually without being physically present in the courtroom, and this applies to both the prosecution and defense council. The logistics constraint could no more be a reason for adjournment as detainees would not be required to be physically present in the court room. As the optimism grow with the success of the new virtual court initiative and the Chief Justice’s consideration of expanding the deployment to the lower courts, this could be one of the breakthroughs that transforms Gambia Judiciary system beyond the COVID 19 pandemic and ensure that citizens have timely access to Justice.