COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 3
As most regions in the world, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have had to face the transformational challenges and abrupt changes of conducting judicial hearings virtually. In this brief article, I will provide a snapshot of how the judicial systems in Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru have rapidly transformed themselves into virtual courts and adapted to a new reality almost no one had foreseen. What laws and protocols did they put in place in order to hold virtual court hearings right after their respective national lockdowns? How has the situation changed after national quarantines were suspended? Any trends or particularities observed?
Bolivia on Blackboard Collaborate
A national lockdown was declared in Bolivia on March 22. However, it wasn’t until April 9 that Bolivia’s Supreme Court held a first meeting to discuss implementing first steps to provide virtual judicial services. As outlined in the Supreme Court’s note no. 06/2020, Bolivia’s judicial system compiled a number of guidelines in order to conduct virtual hearings with the use of Blackboard Collaborate during the national emergency. Initially, these protocols for virtual hearings were enacted to deal exclusively with criminal matters as well as any legal cases regarding COVID-19. However, after the suspension of an initially strict lockdown and the transition into a more “dynamic” and flexible quarantine on May 11, other legal matters were also included in the protocols for virtual hearings which courthouses throughout the country were encouraged to pursue in order to alleviate the backlog of cases.
For the purpose of training all the integral parts in a court hearing, Bolivia’s judicial system developed training materials, infographics and sessions to instruct judges, court employees, attorneys and the public. Including both the initial guidelines as well as after May 11, the authorities claim to have trained more than 9000 people on both how to use Blackboard as well as the new guidelines for successful virtual court hearings. They also claim to have conducted more than 3000 virtual hearings throughout the country. Protocols were also put in place to answer questions such as who is in charge of hosting the virtual hearing, who has access, who records the hearings (if allowed) and more. Since June with the gradual reopening, every region is now encouraged by the national authorities to renew all judicial processes and keep virtual hearings as a viable option in case new surges appear in their own regions.
Peru on Google Meet
The very same day of the declaration of a national lockdown on March 16, Peru’s judicial system decided under its administrative resolution no. 115-2020-CE-PJ the following orders: it will suspend its activities for 15 days, three courts will remain open for urgent matters and a solution needed to be found in order to begin and maintain remote access and virtual work during the emergency. Google Meets was chosen as the platform to be used throughout the country during the duration of the crisis. From the three sectors of Peru’s Supreme Court, two of them, the Civil Sector and the Constitutional and Social Sector decided to make use of this virtual platform immediately. Its usage was mentioned by the CEO of Google Cloud, Thomas Kurian as an example of how the company was helping multiple COVID-19 efforts throughout the world.
Despite its fast implementation, protocols for virtual court hearings were not officially redacted until July 10 which also included guidelines for training on how to use the Google Meet platform and other technology requirements. Beginning of July also brought the official reopening of the country in different stages which also included the reopening of several courthouses and judicial services to the population. However, the gravity of the health crisis in the country and the rapid increase of cases in various regions have forced courthouses to close once again. Some critics have also mentioned the fact that judges in Peru have fought against any technological improvements to the judicial systems for decades while at the same time ignoring how the rapid transformation into virtual court hearings will impact those in extreme poverty and without any internet access whatsoever.
Paraguay on Skype
Before Paraguay’s official national lockdown in April, the country’s judicial system enacted protocols to work remotely and offer judicial services virtually during the health emergency. Despite the initial suspension of court hearings throughout the country, some civil and commercial cases in the capital, Asunción were allowed to continue virtually for those with access to electronic judicial records. If possible, lower courts of first instance for general criminal cases were also allowed to operate remotely. From the beginning, several judges opted to use Skype for virtual court hearings more often than other platforms. However, Whatsapp has also been used in several instances where the platform is more widely used or known. Different from other countries in the region, Paraguay’s judicial system has not universally chosen one platform over another.
Since May, Paraguay has initiated a process called “smart quarantine” which allows certain regions of the country to be as flexible as possible with lockdown measures depending on their specific situation. Courts have adapted to this “smart quarantine” effort as well. Since mid April, protocols for the reopening of courts were put in place. These protocols and new guidelines include the creation of “virtual tickets” to control the entrance of people into the courthouses at the same time. Despite these new protocols, several judges have praised the inclusion and usage of virtual court hearings and predict its continuation in the country’s judicial system. Criminal cases involving prisoners is one area where Paraguay’s judicial system envisions maintaining virtual hearings for the foreseeable future. Virtual court hearings with prisoners have taken place since July. However, a pilot program will be enacted starting soon to habilitate penitentiaries with the technology needed and other important guidelines.