Uganda, which has recorded 84,116 COVID-19 cases with a positivity rate of 11.4% and 1099 active cases on admission at health facilities catalogued her first case last year on Saturday 21 March 2020 at Entebbe International Airport. The country was sent into panic mode, since the virus responsible for worldwide fatalities had set foot within its boundaries.
Then followed the gospel of wash your hands, sanitize, mask up and social distance. Despite the intense anti-COVID-19 transmission campaigns and the various standard operating procedures in place, the virus surreptitiously and gradually infiltrated the public and is currently manifesting in 108 of 135 districts of the country.
The virus caused an initial 14 day nationwide lockdown from April 1 2020 and a much more recent 42day lockdown from 18th June 2021, that saw the birth of a curfew that prevails till today, a halt on transportation, stoppage of social gathering and a momental cessation of all sector activity as envisaged in Rules 10 and 11 of statutory instrument no. 38 of 2021;The Public Health ( Control of COVID-19) Rules. Noticeably, the legal sector is amongst the most affected fields
The legal sector comprises various institutions concerned with the provision of legal services, the administration of justice and the enforcement of legal instruments or orders. This sector includes professions, offices, organizations antecedent to law practice or law maintenance.
The main institutions of this sector are well established by The 1995 Constitution of Uganda and include the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Judiciary, Parliament, Uganda Police Force, Uganda Law Reports Commission and the Uganda Human Rights Commission.
Notably, there are education institutions like established faculties of law, Law Development Centre and professional bodies like Uganda Law Society, Judicial Service Commission, Uganda Association of Prosecutors, Law Council and the Justice Law and Order Sector. Needless to say, to attempt to exhaust all institutions that comprise the legal sector is as good as bailing out the ocean.
COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on work practices across every industry and the legal sector is no exception. There has been fast track digitalization of legal operations. The pandemic has turbocharged technology adoption across the sector by a noticeable number of law firms, corporate legal institutions and departments switching to enabling remote working and exploring virtual ways of delivering services.
Giving credit and justification to the old adage that hard times teach the most valuable lessons, different legal institutions like the judiciary have hence picked the technological advancement lesson first hand by having online court sessions and work meetings.
His Lordship The Chief Justice of Uganda Alfonse Owiny-Dollo issued revised contingency measures to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 wherein judicial officials are expected under guideline 8 to continue to write judgments and rulings and deliver them virtually.
Further still, Guideline 13 presupposes that judicial officers are instructed to pay attention to communications through email addresses so as to ensure timely response to court users. To this effect, guidelines for online court hearings were issued on 29th April 2020 by former Chief Justice Bart Katureebe to enable online hearing of cases during and after COVID-19 for delivery of judgements ,rulings, hearing of applications like bail, mentions and interlocutories. Judgments therein are to be emailed or sent on WhatsApp.
The continuous shut downs enforced in an attempt to curtail COVID 19 in Uganda have created what can be termed as episodes of justice. For every time Uganda locks down, activities in the interest of justice and the law are indisputably put to a temporary end only to resume once normalcy is registered.
The pandemic has therefore evidently reduced the legal sector to an on and off peek-a-boo kind of situation that has resulted to a major obstacle of accessibility of justice with law practitioners, courts of law and the sector confined.
At the heart of justice, is how fast and accessible justice can be attained. Every individual who needs justice must be able to access it. For justice to be attained, it is important that it be timely in some circumstances.
COVID-19 has interfered with timely accessibility that majority of Ugandans have to law practitioners, courts of law and other offices by restricting movement and court activity.
Owing to the need for scaling down national operations and human interaction, His Lordship The Chief Justice on June 7th 2021 issued a directive to the effect that only urgent matters are to be heard during the current 42day lockdown period.
Although an effective means to ensure that a minimal standard of justice is dispensed even in such times, COVID 19 has left justice largely inaccessible.
Although the move to have online court hearings may address the urgent need to curtail COVID-19, accessing justice online in a country like Uganda reduces justice to a luxury only available to the few financially capable and highly placed and further attaches a price to justice since it involves the purchase of computerized gadgets upon which internet can be accessed for such court hearings.
To note is also that effective 1st July, the Ministry of Finance slapped an excise duty rate of 12% on internet packages bringing total tax on internet use to 30% after factoring in the existing 18% Value Added Tax. What then becomes the fate of Ugandans who can’t afford such monies?
The pandemic has further put a stall to different activities that are akin to legal practice and proper dispense of legal services. With the cessation of private and public means of transport, stoppage of social gathering, activities like locus visits affiliated to land cases, mediation meetings, service of court documents, family meetings akin to the grant of letters of administration et-cet-era, that are pre requisites to achieving justice, settling disputes or collecting evidence can not be carried out which further stalls the legal process despite the fact that courts are situate online and restricted to urgent matters.
Conspicuous impact in the sector has also been faced by the institutions availing legal education to scholars and preparing them for law practice. These range from the established faculties of law in different public and private universities that were pushed out of service and activity by the lockdown that has considerably condemned scholars to miss out on required experiences like internship and clerkship in various institutions under the legal sector owing to the high levels of human interaction and contact involved that ease transmission of the virus.
The Law Development Centre, which is the only institution that offers the post graduate diploma in legal practice has also had its share of impact as regards strained clerkship and absence of physical lessons which makes the already intense experience much more indecipherable.
In the wake of the pandemic, legal activity continues to vary based on different firm’s practice areas, geographical location and reputation. For specialized fields such as restructuring or bankruptcy, medical malpractice, activity levels remain robust while most firms majoring in other fields remain with lagged activity.
Laying off of workers, and suspension of contracts as regards employments opportunities in the sector, in the wake of the pandemic is undoubtedly envisaged
The economic fallout of the pandemic will therefore continue to have an impact on the legal sector in many more ways that can be penned down ranging from service provision, accessibility, to discouraging payment for legal services by prospective clients who have been hit by the lockdown effect.
Putting an end to this, many questions in determining justice accessibility in the wake of COVID indisputably surface; the key question lies on many factors inclusive of whether judicial officials and advocates are ready to embrace technology.
It is indeed true that there are lots of possibilities of growth and advancement in the legal sector in the face of COVID 19. I am a big believer that COVID and lockdown has really moved forward the agenda for many legal practitioners around the country to adopt technology in service provision.
Personnel employed in the legal sector need to keep building on the positives from the situation, after all it’s unlikely that we’ll be going back to normal.