“The Covid-19 pandemic also presents opportunities for the Palestinian justice system”

Andres Moreno, a phlegmatic Andalusian lawyer, has spent over a decade outside his home country of Spain delivering advice to judicial systems in the Balkans and the Middle East with the aim of helping them to reform and making them more responsive to the needs of the publics they serve.

During the global lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, he has coordinated and contributed to a report delivered to the Palestinian justice institutions on the steps taken by judicial systems across Europe and North America to respond to the crisis. He is at pains to stress that the report was a team effort, put together by many EUPOL COPPS advisers, and is happy to talk in depth about the consequences of the pandemic for justice systems.

“You need to have social distancing measures in place, and this limits the number of people that can be in a courtroom,” he says. “The danger is that this stalls the judicial system and increases the backlog of cases – which is in any case already very large in many countries. Despite the pandemic, legal life continues. New cases appear and only urgent ones are processed”.

Amid the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic gives rise to for those working in the judicial system, Moreno notes that it could lead to improvements the way that justice is delivered for Palestinians, particularly in terms of speeding up the process of digitalisation. “This could be an opportunity to improve the quality of justice for Palestinians by making the judicial system faster and more efficient. In many judicial systems around the world, courts are able to receive documents online. In Spain, for example, as a registered lawyer I have a card which I can enter into a card reader to submit legal documents electronically. Many countries also allow hearings to take place online. Currently, in the West Bank, it’s not possible either to submit documents or hold court proceedings online however.”

When asked whether greater digitalisation might affect the quality of justice delivered, the Spanish legal expert is quick to point out that delays in hearing cases are a violation of people’s rights. “When you have a backlog of cases going back years, that’s also a denial of justice, isn’t it?” he says. “Any opportunity that a justice system can take to reduce the backlog will lead to improvements in the quality of justice delivered”.

Moreno underlines that given the specificities of life in the West Bank, digitalisation might be particularly beneficial. “Say you have a witness or a suspect in Hebron, and you need to bring them to Salfit for a hearing. We know that even before the pandemic broke out, transfers of people across the West Bank were not always easy. Or what about meetings between detainees and their lawyers – wouldn’t it be easier for these to take place online?”

Asked about the risks of confidentiality being breached through online hearings, Moreno points out that courthouses have security, and this should be no different online. “Confidential information can be extracted electronically, but it can also be extracted from a file in a courthouse. Courts have police officers and security guards physically present to protect the people taking part in a hearing. For the same reason, you have to have electronic safeguards to protect information and people. Faster and more efficient justice is not a risk. On the contrary”.

The Spanish expert continues, “Of course you need to have procedures in place to make sure that people who are testifying are who they say they are. And you also need to ensure that people receive adequate legal assistance, are making statements of their own free will, and are not being coerced. But in the case of witnesses against whom threats have been made, among many other positive examples, electronic hearings should improve the quality of testimony, by allowing them to speak to a court from a place they feel safe”.

Noting existing digitalisation measures which have been useful during the Covid crisis, Moreno praises the e-learning platform set up by UNDP ‘Sawasya II’ project at the Palestinian Judicial Institute for people working in the Palestinian justice system. “We have advised the use of this platform to support our partners during the crisis. The next step will be to move digitalisation further”.

The main obstacle to greater digitalisation in the West Bank is that the legislative framework does not allow for documents to be registered electronically nor for electronic hearings. “Other than the lack of a legislative framework, there are also limitations in terms of technological capacity – e.g. databases, software, connectivity,” says Moreno. “But these are all obstacles that can be overcome. Any efforts to increase the efficiency of the justice system will receive support from us at EUPOL COPPS as well as other international organisations”.