How the Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted Uganda’s Criminal Justice System

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On March 12th 2020, the New York Times published a piece titled, “Justice is blind. What if she also has coronavirus?.” The piece centered on the inappropriate timing of the Covid-19 pandemic and how the Criminal Justice system in America was not ready for such an outbreak. Two months later and more than a hundred miles away—in Uganda—the ripple effects of this pandemic on the Criminal Justice System are being felt.

It is against this background that Counsel Bernard Oundo, currently contesting for the Presidency of the Uganda Law Society, hosted a live webinar to discuss “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Criminal Justice System” at the weekend. The webinar featured some prominent names in Uganda’s criminal justice sector  including the new Director of Public Prosecutions(DPP), Justice Jane Frances Abodo, Makerere Law Don Dr. Daniel Ruhweza, Ms. Winfred Adukule, the Executive Director of FreeChild Uganda, Mr. Henry Kunya, the Managing Partner of Kunya Advocates, Mr. Peter Walubiri, a Senior Partner at Kwesigabo, Bamwiine, Walubiri Advocates and Mr. Pascal Kakuru, an ex-convict and graduate teaching assistant at Justice Defenders.

Justice Jane Frances Abodo, the new DPP, pointed out the glaring fact that COVID-19 has led to interference with court hearings which has in turn exarcebated case backlog. This interference has spilled over into investigation as investigators cannot go to the field to carry out investigations and prisons, where prison authorities have had to hold some convicts in prison even after they have finished serving their sentences. The increase in the number of prisoners arrested and detained for violating the Presidential directives on COVID-19 – standing at 3124 persons according to Mr Frank Baine, the Uganda Prisons Service spokesperson – was another matter of importance she was keen to stress.

Justice Abodo stressed the need to respond reasonably and proportionately and avoid disregard for human rights. “We need to take care of the Human Rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights” In particular, she identified priority cases such as Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and cases involving the terminally ill, citing the need for special criminal sessions to deal with these cases.

Additionally, she acknowledged that the quality of investigations is still lacking and called for collaboration between prosecutors and investigators.

“As prosecution, they should be able to do their role, manage their investigations and do this with the investigators.” She said.

Makerere Law Don, Dr. Daniel Ruhweza on his part highlighted the fact that Covid-19 has brought in a new angle in the way prosecutions, investigations, court systems and the whole Justice, Law and Order sector will operate. This is because it will be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. He believes that there is need for the criminal justice system to adapt accordingly. He also acknowledged that technology will remain an active player in the way prosecutions are done.

Ms. Winfred Adukule stated that Covid-19 has negatively impacted the juvenile sector. She put emphasis on the first lockdown that lasted 14 days, which led to a huge influx in the number of children being taken to various remand homes. Ms. Adukule also remarked that the lockdown period had exposed a couple of challenges in the sector such as the dissemination of laws and the need to empower probation and social welfare officers. The need to decongest remand homes which are currently working above capacity is also vital since it poses a health risk.

Mr. Henry Kunya advocated for constitutionalism in this period, especially in the treatment of accused persons while Mr. Peter Walubiri and Mr. Pascal Kakuru focused on the prolonged trials and judgments, and the need for criminal justice reform and review of cases that have been in the criminal justice system without making headway in the post-COVID era.

At the end of the webinar, with all the divergent views and opinions, one thing was clear: the reform of the Criminal Justice System is crucial, most especially in the period after the pandemic.

It should not be an issue of “If” but “When”.


( With assistance by Owach Ritah)

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