Litigants are finding themselves stranded at the High Court after the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) rolled out e-courts without adequate systems in place.
The JSC recently rolled out the Integrated Electronic Case Management System (IECMS).
The IECMS was expected to introduce electronic case filing, automatic case allocation to judicial officers, electronic case tracking and management from filing to finalisation and virtual hearings.
However, the system is practically inefficient and has created chaotic scenes at the High Court where everything including court hearings is happening virtually.
A memo gleaned by this publication shows that the JSC is desperately trying to save the situation after getting a wild uproar from lawyers.
The JSC also confirms in the memo that it has one IECMS system which operates across all High Court seats which is inefficient.
“The ICT department has advised that the system challenges are largely being caused by too many sessions being conducted concurrently.
“The ICT department has also advised that the system can only accommodate a set number of concurrent sessions at any given time. It is only possible to deal with 7 matters per session inclusive of all High Court Seats,” reads the memo by Judge President Mary-Zimba Dube.
To address the challenges faced by judges on the virtual platform, a scheduling office for virtual sittings has been established at the High Court.
Harare is responsible for arranging, maintaining and monitoring timetables for virtual sittings.
Consequently, all virtual hearings will need to be coordinated.
Judges have been advised to send details of all matters set down for hearing through their assistants well before the date of hearing to enable scheduling of matters.
The JSC also resolved that there will be three sessions per day, from 9am to 11am, 11.30am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm respectively.
Appeals according to the memo are to be set down from 10am to 1pm and the second session from 2pm to 4pm.
Opposed matters are to be set down in one session unless they cannot be dealt with within one session.
Bails will be heard from 9am to 1pm while urgent matters will be handled before 10am or between 2pm and 4pm.
Pre-trial conferences are to be heard before 10am or after 2pm while unopposed matters will be set down within the three sessions as required.
After receiving complaints, the Law Society of Zimbabwe has since engaged the JSC in a bid to understand the situation in a bid to assist the practice.
LSZ executive secretary Edward Mapara said they have been compiling the list of issues coming from the membership through the various platforms.
This will be shared with the JSC team leaders for their attention.
“We have also requested a consultative/interactive hybrid meeting with the JSC Team leaders and their technical team to allow members to take forward any outstanding issues they could be facing on the IECMS.
“Meeting modalities will be advised as soon as our request has been considered. At this proposed meeting, we hope to have Team leaders from the JSC, your councillors and the technical teams from both JSC and the LSZ in attendance.
“Following receipt of concerns from members on the challenges around the IECMS at the General Division of the High Court, we have engaged the Team Leaders at the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) with a view to getting an update on progress made in addressing the system challenges,” said Mapara.
Lawyers say the system is “very inefficient and authorities did not do enough homework before introducing it”.
The NewsHawks in a recent survey noticed that the case filing office is always congested, with messengers and litigants trying to register to be in the system.
Judgements and court orders are no longer physically accessible and the courts are sitting virtually, shutting out the public who might be following some cases.
Some of the High Court staffers are also confused and some officers are left sitting in their offices, clueless on what is going on.
In a recent snap survey by this publication, several lawyers expressed frustration, noting that justice was no longer being served at the High Court.
“The way the IECMS was introduced, especially in the High Court, shows that the JSC is not ready for the IECM system.
“You would find that one used to just walk into the High Court, file summons, make a payment for the filing of those summons and proceed to instruct the Sheriff to serve,…and the Sheriff could serve the summons within the same day. Within four to five hours the process would be done.
“One is now taking more than seven days to do that because now you have to upload onto a system and the system is not automated such that it automatically gives you a response,” said a prominent lawyer on condition of anonymity.
Another lawyer concurred, saying the new system was an impediment to justice delivery.
“There is a person sitting behind the system so there is no automation at all as the JSC is claiming.
“What is actually there is they have simply placed an impediment or they have simply placed a middlemen or a barrier to what was being done physically because everything is still physical, apart from the fact that you are required to file online and a person sitting behind the computer somewhere within the High Court checks whatever you have filed and then has to respond and tell you that you can now proceed to do ABC.
“So instead of this making it easy, it has now prolonged the whole process of what needs to be done,” he said.
Another source said the system does not have the capacity to carry the weight of the High Court.
“It can only carry seven matters at a time. You find that at the Harare High Court you have got more than 30 judges. You have a sitting in Mutare, a sitting in Masvingo, a sitting in Chinhoyi and a sitting in Bulawayo where High Court matters are being heard every moment and that has really slowed the pace of things.”
He added: “Importantly as well, what this has done is instead of increasing or enhancing access to justice, it has now really taken away access to justice because for a simple bail matter that used to take you three days . . . you file in the High Court today, you are given a date to appear before a judge, you now have to file and wait for some compliance checks to be done for NPA to respond, for a date and you also now have to really wait for the hearing to be set down, which is taking so much time.
“And after the hearing is done, bail is granted in the High Court. One now has to wait for the judge to go back into chambers, type the whole order or judgement into the system, upload it, send it to accounts . . . so all those things are pretty much-delaying justice.
“Most importantly, it has also closed out the public from accessing courts. The public can no longer have a chance to walk into court and sit into matters because matters are now being held virtually and you are supposed to have a certain link to get in there.
“There are certain variables that really the JSC cannot control and no one can control them: access to internet, electricity, access to gadgets.
“All of those things have not been factored into it . . . so if on that particular day there is weak internet here in Zimbabwe, it means that matters cannot be heard, people cannot be heard in the court of law, whilst judges are there, seated in the courts.
“So there really is a lot that is happening and the JSC needs to, as soon as possible, come to the table and say should we be implementing this system the way we are or should we do it perhaps the way we have done it with other courts?” said the lawyer.
Another lawyer said it would be better if the High Court followed what is happening at the Supreme and Constitutional courts.
“In the Constitutional Court, you file using the system but people still go for physical hearings. In the Supreme Court, it’s the same, you file online but you still go for physical hearings in the High Court you have simply turned it into a virtual court completely, which also is unheard of across the world.
“Across the whole world, there is no a court system that is completely virtual, even in advanced countries where there is advanced technology, internet with so much speed, with no load-shedding, they have not gone virtual because courts by their nature are public forums which the public should access, and should be able to have confidence in the system, but right now confidence is at an all-time low so there are several things that should be looked into but not looked into now because the system is affecting lawyers.”
Another lawyer said it was a noble idea however, noting that “the challenge includes infrastructure for the network.”
“We do not have internet providers who can effectively support the system. This has caused justice system delays. Bail now takes two to three weeks to be heard. Urgent applications require the same period to be heard. Perhaps, they should consider a hybrid system, the old system and the new being integrated and used at the same time.”