Designing of a paperless system for the superior courts is now complete and the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) is ready to train staff on how to operate the new system ahead of the programme’s launch early next year.
The Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and Commercial Court (a division of the High Court) will be the first to go paperless in the new system.
The system allows all submissions that up to now have been on paper and then distributed to the parties and the courts, to be submitted in digital form.
It becomes more relevant in this Covid-19 pandemic era where physical interaction is being discouraged.
After the launch of the first phase of the electronic system in the first quarter of 2022, the JSC will move to the second phase where the programme will cascade to the rest of the High Court, Labour Court, Administrative Court, magistrates courts and the office of the Sheriff.
All documents will be in electronic format, with lawyers sending their submissions through the internet.
In a recent interview, JSC secretary Mr Walter Chikwana said the electronic system was already in place and the commission required a month or two to ensure training of the staff and to test the system before the official launch.
“The system has already been designed. This is in respect of the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and the Commercial Court. We were supposed to launch the paperless courts in January 2022 but we feel we require a month or two to do a test run and to ensure the staff deployed to the courts in question, is adequately trained to operate the system. We also need to procure the data centre before the launch, which will be held at the end of the first quarter of next year,” said Mr Chikwana.
Once the courts go electronic, filing of court documents will be done electronically.
Stakeholders in the justice system have hailed the development describing it as a milestone.
ZACC spokesperson Mr John Makamure welcomed the new system saying it smoothens and helps in curbing corruption.
“ZACC welcomes the introduction of an electronic case management system by the JSC. Digitisation of court systems and processes reduces human interface and that can curb corruption.
“It improves efficiency and effectiveness in the criminal justice system. This is because the system controls and allows complete registration of all court cases and tracking of case current status and location; and enhances public access to information on the progress of the case,” said Mr Makamure.
Mr Makamure added that ZACC was also working on its own electronic case management system. ZACC is also currently in the process of establishing its own electronic case management system.
Harare lawyer Mr Caleb Mucheche of Caleb Mucheche Law Chambers said: “This is a milestone achievement and noteworthy positive move by JSC aimed at modernising our court system and enhancing fast access to justice in the country via information technology.
South Africa based Zimbawean lawyer Mrs Tambudzai Gonese-Manjonjo said the move was progressive.
“It is a very progressive move which is way overdue,especially in light of the issues to access to justice brought by pandemic lockdowns.
Certainly a welcome move for the legal fraternity. However, care has to be taken not to exclude those that have challenges in accessing online facilities. I also hope that it will lead to reduction in the costs of accessing justice from the courts,” said Mrs Gonese-Manjonjo.
Ms Jacqueline Sande of Sande & Partners said the new system promoted access to justice for all.
“This is a welcome development. It is high time we should computerise our court records and processes. This will improve on efficiency of the court system because everything will be found on a digital platform. Hopefully, this will mean that people will access court even from the comfort of their offices. This will result in more people havingaccess to justice,” she said.
It is also understood that litigation costs will be slashed by almost two thirds as there will be no travelling, printing and other costs.
The paperless system is expected to eliminate errors and corruption as it is difficult to cheat a digitised system.
The loss of court files and other documents will be minimised under the new electronic system.
The concept of paperless courts allows for seamless transition from court’s manual or semi-automatic case management to an absolute paperless court operation.
Users with relevant permission, can electronically sign documents in a secure manner with the option of adding an electronic stamp on the documents.
The same documents can be uploaded into the system or can be generated within the system.
In addition, in case the document form requires multiple signatures, it can be signed by all the authorised users.
This function eliminates the need for system users to print the document, sign and stamp it, then scan and upload the scanned version into the system.
The system will fully replicate the existing processes thus assuring that all those activities can be done through the system without any need of paper processing.
Litigants can also be summoned to court electronically and electronic delivery receipts can be generated within the system.
If there are any deadlines for arguing the case, the court sends out letters to parties. The system not only allows to send notifications, but also allows the court staff to see within the system if the letter or notification has been delivered to parties.
Virtual hearing allows an accused person, charged in a police station or in prison, to have a hearing held over secure video link from the courts.
The same equipment allows police witnesses to give evidence in court via the police station or the nearest court, thereby freeing up time to carry out frontline duties rather than travelling to and from court. This will also apply to civil proceedings.
Payment of bail fees, sheriff or messenger of court fees can be done electronically and legal research for lawyers can also be done using the same system.
Administrative processes that were the bedrock of the system were cumbersome and digitisation is expected to go a long way in lifting that administrative load.
It will minimise the chances of human error with regards to issues like filing of documents.
The fact that lawyers and witnesses will be able to make submissions via video link will cut both cost and time.
Litigation costs are curtailed. Time spent on travelling becomes a thing of the past as filing court documents will be done at the click of a mouse.
The system allows for easy file tracking and reduction of the human element in the management of the process filed.
It eliminates the common problems of missing files and tampering with the files.