Covid-19 and the justice and legal sector

Covid-19, the viral threat that is sweeping across the world, is not exempting the judicial and legal sector. It raises problems for the operation of courts and legal practices as well as posing novel legal dilemmas. Here is a glimpse of some of the challenges being dealt with internationally in relation to the law, reported over the last week.  

As Jifa reported earlier this month, law firms reacted to the epidemic early with partial closures. Now, some have closed their offices completely. Others are keeping just a few staff in the offices while others work at home. But how is it decided who stay safely at home, and who must risk their health going to work?

The UK-based Legal Sector Workers Union, representing qualified lawyers and others who work in the legal sector, said it had clear evidence that large law firms were allowing partners to work at home, while lower-paid, more vulnerable staff, were obliged to go in to work.

Calling this a ‘classist allocation of risk’, the union quoted one of its leaders, advocate Franck Magennis, as saying: ‘The pandemic is coming to a head in the legal sector. Managing partners at too many law firms are failing to act. … This is a health and safety issue. You have a right to walk off the job if conditions aren’t safe.’

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What about criminal trials? Where juries still form part of the justice system, the virus presents particular difficulties. The UK’s Criminal Bar Association says that jury members are having to be discharged replaced and replaced in ongoing trials as jurors become infected. Hygiene is also a problem; sometime no soap is provided which ‘exposes court users to unacceptable risks.’

The Bar Standards Board is concerned about the health risks to everyone involved posed by trial by jury. Stressing that the right to trial by jury is fundamental, the Criminal Bar Association says that the continuation of jury trials ‘at this stage’, and without proper procedures and protocols in place, ‘is too great’.

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What about the human rights that quarantine, enforced by emergency measures, could infringe? In a new blog, Niall Coghlan, advocate and writer on the law, particularly on issues involving health and fundamental rights, takes a hard look at the quarantine and lockdown steps now imposed in many parts of Europe. Do they infringe the human rights of those they affect, he asks.

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African governments could soon be supplied with the means to conduct quick, easy and cheap testing for the coronavirus. The testing kits are being jointly planned by a Senegalise research foundation Institut Pasteur de Dakar and the UK-based company, Mologic. Once these kits become available, they will shorten the waiting time for results from days – to about 10 minutes.

This is particularly good news for Africa where only 36 of 54 countries are able to conduct testing, although results are often very delayed. It will also help reduce pressure on laboratories. 

In another development, the Ethiopia-based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is braced to distribute 200 000 tests across the continent by the end of March.

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In Kenya, medical aid companies initially said they would not cover costs related to corona virus infections as it was now officially a ‘pandemic’. However, the Insurance Regulatory Authority has now confirmed that all policy holders, affected by the virus, will be covered.

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In Namibia, all magistrates courts were closed on 16 March so that precautions could be put in place to protect people using the courts again Covid-19. The high courts were also closed for some hours. Mediations scheduled until the end of the month were cancelled. So were taxations, which are to resume on a date yet to be announced.

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In the USA, the Supreme Court has announced that it is postponing hearings in cases due to be heard in late March and early April because of Covid-19. Among the judges a majority are in the age group of those most likely to become very ill from the virus. At the time of the announcement, the building itself had already been closed to the public.

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In response to Covid-19, anyone arriving in Australia must spend 14 days in self-quarantine. But what law would be used to enforce this period of self-quarantine? – Mostly the country-wide Biosecurity Act of 2015, along with state and territory laws.

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