Several lawyers agreeCovid-19’s effect on Namibia’s judicial system is devastating as the delivery of fair and speedy trials continues to be hampered. For many, the wheels of justice have simply ground to a halt because of the pandemic.
Courts are closed, prisons are closed, prisoners are not allowed to meet with outsiders, including but not limited to their legal practitioners.
Natji Tjirera, a lawyer based in Otjiwarongo, said Article 12 of the Namibian Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and that right also includes the right for the trial to be concluded in a reasonable time.
“This is more so for cases involving accused persons who are incarcerated. It is completely unfair for an accused person to remain in custody as a trial-awaiting prisoner for years on end,” Tjirera stated.
“As we speak now, there is a directive from the judge president that the high courts should be closed and cases postponed in chambers. This has been as a result of the lockdown.”
He further lamented the fact that it will be extremely difficult to get dates for those trials in the already congested court rolls in the near future.
“This is very concerning,” he stressed, adding that it is most likely that cases which were set down for hearing recently will only be heard next year.
“That will be a slap in the face for the constitutional imperative of a right to a speedy trial,” he reiterated.
Tjirera further said only recently while the courts were operating, the Windhoek Correctional Facility was hit by the virus, and criminal trials could subsequently not proceed.
This means trial-awaiting prisoners, who are constitutionally presumed innocent until proven guilty, will be held in custody while awaiting the fixing of trial dates. “On at least two occasions, we have seen presiding officers succumb to the deadly virus, and that means that all their partly-heard matters will have to start afresh, and all the resources that were invested in those cases will have to be invested again.
Private clients who paid thousands of dollars to their lawyers will have to pay those lawyers again during these difficult times,” he stated.
According to Tjirera, what is crystal clear is that the judicial system, in all its manifestations, has been negatively affected by the pandemic, and the sooner it returns to normalcy the better.
Several cases, including the high-profile Fishrot joinder application, have been postponed recently as correctional authorities imposed a total lockdown at prisons, meaning that no inmate may receive visitors, including from their legal representatives, or leave the facility until further notice.
According to the Namibia Correctional Services, who administer the facilities, the lockdown was necessitated by the recent upsurge in Covid-19 cases.
Also adding his voice is local lawyer Jermaine Muchali, who said the pandemic is the prodigal “black swan” that has disrupted judicial processes.
According to him, it is not only the accused persons who are negatively affected, but their legal representatives as well as they cannot claim when courts are not in session, or they cannot consult with those clients who are incarcerated.
Another Windhoek-based lawyer, Kadhila Amoomo, said the initiative of Judge President Petrus Damaseb to introduce online case management in civil matters has somewhat negated the impact of Covid-19 on the justice system.
He added, however, that the initiative should be expanded to include the criminal stream, which will make it unnecessary for accused persons to attend court in person as they will be able to follow and partake in court proceedings online.