Against a background of a fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic, long queues in courts, and piles of papers stacked in boxes, the South African justice system is going through a digital revolution – hearing some cases virtually. A report in The Citizen notes that, while it may take years to achieve a paperless order, Gauteng courts have embraced modernization – conducting cases live via a Zoom video link-up, with judges, litigants, and lawyers simultaneously connected from different locations. However, criminal trials would still be heard in person by courts, due to exhibits being required in support of evidence, according to top Johannesburg lawyers.
Pan African Bar Association of SA (Pabasa) chair, Advocate Nasreen Rajab-Budlender SC, described the virtual platforms as having ushered a revolution in courts. ‘In Gauteng, the virtual platforms have been successful. Before Covid-19, our Judge President here in Gauteng, Justice Dunstan Mlambo, had already started introducing the system of Case Lines, which is about putting together all the documents relevant to the case on a shared online platform,’ she said. Rajab-Budlender said this makes it possible for anyone involved in that case – including the judge – to have access to all documents. ‘We have done trials and applications online, with very few things happening in person during the lockdown. I have not been in a courtroom in a year,’ she said. Pabasa founding member and acting High Court Judge Gcina Malindi said it was not without its problems. ‘It is a huge departure from the principle of open hearings because the general public is now excluded. The whole philosophy behind justice is that it must not only be done but it must also be seen to be done,’ she said.