Are the wheels of justice still turning?
On 16 March 2020, a directive was handed down in Johannesburg to assist practitioners, members of the public, Judges and court staff in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court has taken a decision that only urgent court matters will be dealt with and only those which had been previously enrolled for a hearing. This again is subject to the parties not being able to postpone the matter by agreement.
If there is a postponement, preferential dates would be provided.
A large part of legal practice is the exchange of documentation between respective attorneys on behalf of clients. This includes issuing of a summons to initiate proceedings but also the filing of various notices to continue the litigation process. The manner in which documents are filed is that they are first served on the opposing parties attorneys of record and once served presented at court for filing. Effective immediately, service will take place electronically, this means that it will no longer be necessary and certainly not recommended that messengers travel from one office to another delivering documents. Each time a document is delivered or served, it involves an interaction between that messenger and staff of the receiving attorney practice. The document must then be taken to court where messengers from all across that jurisdiction would at one point or another of the day have to attend and meet with court staff. This will now all take place electronically.
The directive issued prevents practitioners’ messengers or members of the public from entering the court building to issuing a new process.
Only the attorneys in a matter, the witnesses who would need to give evidence, or the accused persons are permitted to attend hearings.
Another established legal practice is that practitioners, advocates and attorneys, would introduce themselves to a Judge prior to a hearing. This practice has now been suspended.
Case management meetings which are normally conducted before a Judge and crowded courtrooms by attorneys from different firms will now be undertaken by teleconference / skype by arrangement between the parties and the Judge.
Importantly, Judges who were not scheduled to be sitting at court are required to work from home.
The practice of the law continues. In the course of a day in a legal practice, an attorney and staff are in constant contact with clients, members of the public and each other. This has now been suspended. However, attorneys still continue to render advice be it over skype or teleconferencing and certainly by email.
In the end, courts will remain open, there will be no shutdown, but the measures above will be accompanied by stringent sterilisations measures to ensure the health and safety of all parties which will include measuring the temperature of people coming into court and providing protective masks and gloves to the staff and sterilisation of the courtrooms at least twice a day, biometric systems have been disabled.
In these times of crisis, there are many uncertainties, but the law is not suspended and for a functioning society, the social contract must remain in place and regulated by rule of law.