Project Pitch and Q&A

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Project Summary

When COVID-19 locked-down the world in early 2020, PJSI immediately redesigned its program to support the new and urgent needs of Pacific courts. Specifically, PJSI enabled courts to: 1) conduct and track proceedings remotely across vast geographic distances; and 2) protect the rights of escalating numbers of victims of sexual and family violence. Maintaining strong and accountable governance, Pacific courts have been able to remain open, accessible and responsive to the needs of the communities they serve.

Problem Statement

The administration of justice in all 15 participating Pacific Island Countries is fragile. These countries are small, physically remote, often extraordinarily beautiful, and culturally pristine. But they are also economically under-developed, environmentally vulnerable, have rudimentary healthcare facilities, and, usually, limited access to information communication technologies.

The core problem being addressed by the Initiative is the limited capacity of Pacific courts to administer justice effectively across the region. This problem is particularly acute for the victims of family and sexual violence, which is endemic across the region. Family and sexual violence is traditionally underreported. The prevalence of family and sexual violence in the Pacific is more than double global benchmarks. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has obstructed access to court services and disrupted the administration and delivery of justice-related services. 

Access to court services and the exercise of legal rights is characteristically difficult across the region owing to physical remoteness from townships with courthouses; financial cost; the lack of qualified lawyers; patriarchy; traditional culture; and widespread ignorance of the role of the courts, the availability of legal protections, and the exercise of legal rights.

Systemic restrictions on human movement and distancing caused by the pandemic, along with the physical closure of courthouses and/or disruption to court proceedings, present additional and significant obstacles to justice. For some Pacific countries this has meant the closure of courts, while others continue to operate under strict precautionary measures. Some courts have also moved to online case management and electronic filing systems, and commenced conducting hearings via video and teleconferencing, many for the first time. Others still have been unable to sit while non-resident judges cannot travel, or have needed to defer judicial tours to outer islands to minimize the risk of infection.

Project DescriptionPacific Judicial Strengthening Initiative

Fair, responsive, just, and efficient justice, delivered through court-led development, provides participating courts with the tools and capacity to be accessible despite geographic distance, and responsive in delivering protections to those fearing or suffering domestic violence. It also enables courts to improve low levels of community awareness of legal rights and how to protect them in court.

To support the strained capacity of justice systems to meet justice demands, and facilitate the functioning of justice systems disrupted by the pandemic, the Initiative collaborated with its partners to build systemic and human capacity to use digital, online, and new information communication technologies to maintain case hearing, quality, and disposition goals. This includes:

  1. Providing remote hearing and case management/tracking software, training, and resources.
  2. Developing a Remote Court Hearing Toolkit on: the nature, scope, and types of remote court proceedings; privacy, the right to confront, vulnerable witnesses; preparing, conducting, and managing remote proceedings; and technology options, considerations, and costs.
  3. Conducting webinars discussing responses to the pandemic by courts in New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. 
  4. Publishing fortnightly COVID-newsletters and comprehensive court policy/resource documents to enable courts to expedite their responses to the pandemic. 

These activities supported our partners to continue providing justice services during the pandemic. The Initiative also supported the development of capacity and efficiency in responding to gender-based violence and human rights cases by publishing and distributing gender-based violence and human rights guides and checklists, and conducting remote workshops about specific, priority gender-based violence and human rights issues.

The enthusiastic, wholesale, and immediate uptake of technological solutions has enabled many Pacific courts to quickly resume the conduct of all types of hearings. This has ensured that court cases have been largely uninterrupted in most Pacific nations, including hearings for protection orders in domestic violence cases.

While expanding normal' court protocol to hear matters remotely has enabled courts to maintain justice services during the pandemic, it also laid the foundations for geographically dispersed populations across the Pacific to access formal courts to protect their rights when the pandemic is over. 

Evidence demonstrates sharp increases in remote connectivity between and among partners and between courts and their users. It also indicates that one of the positive impacts of the pandemic is transformation about the way courts understand and perform their roles in delivering justice that is more accessible, inclusive, adaptive, and responsive to the needs of the communities they serve across the Pacific.

Project Impact and Potential for Scaling, Replication, and Sustainability

The Initiative could be further scaled to all courts in all Pacific nations, to justice sector agencies/agents across the Pacific, and around the world. The remote aspects of program delivery and court hearings will be particularly useful for countries with geographically dispersed communities. The guidance about responding appropriately to human rights cases, particularly to victims of family and sexual violence, will be useful for all countries as gender-based violence affects us all.

In order to scale these components of the Initiative, along with software; online mentoring will be required to install and use the remote hearing equipment. This will necessarily be coupled with supporting courts to adapt their Court Rules and policies to codify remote hearings. This will enable more judiciaries in more countries to continue to extend their court services and expand their geographic reach, and, in doing so, offer better access to justice. Complimented by proactively addressing gender-based violence according to contemporary human rights norms and appropriately sensitive approaches, courts can provide better access to just, efficient, and responsive justice.

Efficient and effective consultation with key stakeholders in all participating countries enabled the Initiative to ascertain priority needs—as impacted by the pandemic—and expediently redesign the Initiative to respond. Its immediate success across a region of divergent capacity, systems, and operating realities demonstrates its replicability to address some of the impacts of the pandemic and other emergency situations elsewhere. 

The policies and approaches developed by Pacific courts are available to be considered and adapted by other countries. This includes a series of online 'Toolkits' inter alia: Remote Court Proceedings, Gender and Family Violence, Family Violence and Youth Justice Workshops, Human Rights, Access to Justice, Enabling Rights and Unrepresented Litigants, Efficiency, Reducing Backlog and Delay, Time Goals, Judicial Complaints Handling, Judicial Conduct, Judicial Decision-Making, and Judicial Mentoring Toolkits. This is in addition to six human rights checklists for judicial and court officers focusing on: victims of family or sexual violence, children, juveniles, or people with a disability coming to court; inclusive and welcoming courts; minimizing pre-trial detention; and judicial visits to places of detention.

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