‘Virtual courts may infringe rights’

MEMBERS of the public yesterday said the introduction of virtual courts could infringe on the rights of accused persons.

This came out during a public hearing on the Judicial Laws Amendment Bill in Harare by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice.

The Bill seeks to provide for virtual court sittings in both civil and criminal proceedings at a time when many nationals are not conversant with modern technology.

It also seeks to align various provisions of judicial laws to the Constitution.

The Judicial Service Commission launched the virtual court system in February this year to speed up the completion of cases clogging the Judiciary.

Zimbabwe Lawyers of Human Rights (ZLHR) representative MacDonald Moyo said virtual courts might result in adverse human rights implications.

“In criminal cases, the conduct of the proceedings should, as far as possible, reflect in-person trials ensuring the right to a fair hearing under section 69 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Accused persons must be able to adduce all evidence without obstacles and virtual proceedings must ensure that due process is followed,” Moyo said.

“Given the digital divide that exists in Zimbabwe — with most of the population experiencing internet access challenges for many reasons including high data costs, high costs of smart devices, social and economic inequalities, and inadequate infrastructure — virtual courts may further infringe on the right to non-discrimination, equality and equal protection and benefit of the law protected under section 56 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.”

Proposing that there should be provision in the Bill to allow detained persons to challenge their detention through physical appearance in court, Moyo added: “There should be a limit imposed on the number of sessions that can be heard virtually, ordinarily, remands are for 14 days, at least a maximum of 28 days to ensure that the accused person appears before a magistrate who can also verify their welfare, including any issues or violations that may be perpetrated by the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services officials.”

Veritas representative Kuziva Ngodza said: “Most people in the country do not have access to computers and WiFi, so how are we also going to ensure that they have access to these in light of the amendments being proposed by the Bill? We need effective cross examination on the virtual platforms.” Newsday

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