Africa / Access to Justice in the time of Covid-19

Brian H Speers

Over the past few weeks, in conjunction with the Bar Council of England and Wales, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association has held a series of Zoom conversations with our regional hub areas.

In these discussions our Vice Presidents for the region have participated helpfully and assembled Council members and others from the region to share experiences and thoughts. The focus has, of course, been on the administration of justice and access to justice during the COVID health emergency. There have been some common themes emerging across the regions, but during the Africa Hub discussions, there was particular focus on issues of access to Justice, use of technology and concern over emergency powers.

The CLA issued a statement regarding government’s responses to the health emergency and one phrase seems to have resonated. It is that emergency powers should only be in place for the duration of the emergency.

This seems to have resonated with many colleagues and has stimulated a recognition that lawyers everywhere must be vigilant. The emergency powers regarding procurement of goods or services or regarding police enforcement powers during lockdowns, can so easily simply become a new but undesirable normal. Lawyers’ vigilance over scrutiny of the powers and creating time limits for powers to remain in force will be essential.

It was in the Africa hub discussion that another thought emerged, which impressed me.  It was how interconnected our legal lives have become. The usual response in COVID/health emergencies discussion is about the use of technology in courts and whether a criminal jury trials can or cannot take place assuring the safety of legal practitioners and juries where social distancing in Court rooms is not so easily achieved.

While everyone recognises the high profile of administering justice through the Court system, the administration of justice also operates in the Probate Court, in the Courts of Protection, dealing with the affairs of persons who are incapacitated; in the Bankruptcy Registry and the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds. All of these areas assist in the continuing delivery of legal services and advice and relief to clients.

An administration of justice system must not only deliver justice in Court but deliver justice for transactions and to persons who need protection. The unavailability of an up to date Land Register and the closing of Probate Courts can bring delays and frustrations to people unable to access funds or to deal with the affairs of a person in need.

I take a number of thoughts from the perspective of the Africa Hub: dealing with emergency legislation for the duration only of the emergency, the interconnectedness of all legal life and the need for lawyers to be vigilant.

It was my great privilege to have participated in that Africa Hub discussion and for those who wish to listen to more of the wisdom imparted during the discussion, you are encouraged to find the link on the CLA website.

The webinar can be accessed here: