Zimbabwe to introduce e-courts and commercial courts next week, expanding access to justice.

  • Zimbabwe to introduce electronic courts early next month, with all the partners trained and geared to embrace the development.
  • President Emmerson Mnangagwa is to officially commission the newly-established Commercial Court division of the High Court the same week.
  • The theme for 2022, as announced by Chief Justice Luke Malaba is Use of Technology to Enhance Efficiency and the Rule of Law in the Judiciary.

Zimbabwe is set to introduce electronic courts (e-courts) starting May 1, 2022. E-courts will be introduced in line with new technologies and the need for efficiency in the delivery of justice with consistency and collective effort by all justice delivery players. The key advantages include bringing in a justice serving mechanism that is transparent, efficient, affordable, time-saving, protects the interests of witnesses, reduces the backlog of pending cases, and most importantly reduces the number of unscrupulous activities. The announcement was made through Statutory Instrument (SI) 78, 79, and 80 of 2022 published in the Government Gazette.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa is expected to officially commission the newly-established Commercial Court division of the High Court next week. The court is designed to improve the ease of doing business in line with the criteria set by the World Bank and contribute to the national effort in attracting local and foreign direct investment. However, its core function is the expeditious resolution of commercial disputes according to international best practices to enhance efficient justice delivery.

Giving his State of the Judiciary Address (SOJA) early this year Chief Justice Luke Malaba said efficiency is connected to justice delivery as justice must not be delayed. As the saying goes ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ He further blamed the challenges in accessing justice that the nation continues to face on the persistent Covid-19 pandemic.

Addressing the challenges, and in line with the 2022 legal year theme, Malaba promised that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) would adopt technological measures that are earmarked to reform and transform the current operations in the justice delivery sector.

The theme for 2022, as announced by the Chief Justice is Use of Technology to Enhance Efficiency and the Rule of Law in the Judiciary.

The e-courts and Covid-19

Calamities, at times, become catalysts for initiating change. Although Zimbabwe’s journey towards creating digital infrastructures to deliver justice predates the outbreak of the COVID-19, the lockdown hastened the process of the country’s judicial system going online.

National lockdowns imposed in varying degrees to combat the COVID-19 pandemic since March 24, 2021, triggered a flurry of initiatives that reshaped the functioning of courts in Zimbabwe.  The acute challenges of holding in-person hearings added a sense of immediacy to Zimbabwe’s efforts towards digitalization of its judiciary in conducting hearings and across other functions of courts such as scheduling, case registries, and document circulation.

Zimbabwe Training Judges on ICT to Improve Justice System last year (Photo/ African leadership magazine)

All players in the justice system including judges and magistrates and court staff and the JSC itself, legal practitioners, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Office of the Attorney-General, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, the Zimbabwe Republic Police, and the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service have received training from the JSC ICT team.

Integrated Electronic Case Management System (IECMS)

Speaking at the official opening of the 2018 legal year on January 15, 2018, Malaba said he was expediting the transformation of the court system whereby cases would be filed and managed electronically, which is a radical departure from the current system where cases are managed manually.

“The system will assist us to manage, monitor, and track all cases filed in our courts. The system will bring in efficiency in our courts, assist in reducing backlogs, and, critically, it will help to eliminate corruption,” he said.

In a system where money is speaking louder than the statutes, the road to justice has often been paved with bribes. Judicial corruption comes in many forms than just the existence of bogus lawyers. In many cases, court documents vanish when the rich and the powerful are implicated and justice suffers.

Integrated Electronic Case Management System (IECMS) will introduce electronic case filing, automatic case allocation to judicial officers, electronic case tracking and management from filing to finalization, and virtual hearings. As far as 2018 former Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) president Misheck Hogwe told Zimbabwe Situation, a local media house, that they are confident in the integrated electronic case management system for the courts.

“We are very confident that this system is finally going to be introduced. There is no better way of fighting the menace of corruption in our justice delivery system than that. As LSZ, we welcome this initiative because it will allow us to track delinquent and bogus lawyers. They are naturally eliminated by this system. We cannot talk about corruption at the courts without also talking about corruption in the profession,” he said.

Former National Prosecuting Authority boss Ray Goba said vices in the justice delivery system could be a thing of the past once e-courts become a reality.

“Certainly, it enables information to be made available to all sectors of the justice delivery system, so to that extent, that system is very welcome,” he said.

While ICTs proffer solutions to some of the problems, they also bring in their challenges. ICT expert Moses Hamudikuwanda believes that technology needs to be treated with great caution as it could also bring fresh challenges and might fail to end corruption in the judiciary.

“Technology is merely an instrument and should not be considered as a one-stop solution to eradicate corruption in the justice delivery system. The best way to reduce corruption is to reduce human interference. We should move a step further and get e-options for payments because once this is in place, chances of corruption go down,” said a top Harare lawyer Alec Muchadehama.

The system will be a records management tool and will remove the storage challenges that court registries have been facing all these years. Seriously, it took a pandemic for them to realize the files upon files that were filling their offices could be replaced by hard drives. That’s sad. The courts are severely backlogged and the IECMS should help in managing that backlog.

The Integrated Electronic Case Management System was supposed to launch in January 2022. However, lockdown-related delays pushed the new launch month to May. First in line to try out the system will be the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, and the High Court’s Commercial Court Division.

They partnered with Synergy International Systems (SIS), an American company that has been doing this for years. SIS has aided in judicial systems for governments all over the world and so should be bringing a competent software package.

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Albert is a Chemical Technologist and Author. He is passionate about mining, stock market investing, Fintech and Edutech.

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