By: Kersti Fjørstad
Kersti Fjørstad serves as Board member for the European region of the International Association for Court Administration and as Board member of the International Institute for Justice Excellence. All opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author as an external expert and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UNODC.
On 12 March 2020, the Norwegian Government implemented the strictest and most invasive measures ever introduced in Norway in peacetime in the hopes of stopping or slowing down the spread of COVID-19 infections. The courts quickly had to address how best to handle their role in society in a prudent manner. It was quickly realized that something had to be done to find alternatives to physical court sessions. For most court cases, alternative ways for processing the cases were considered: either in writing, as remote sessions or as a combination of both.
Norway adopted further temporary regulations on 28 March 2020, referred to as "The Corona Act". It provided the courts with a more comprehensive toolkit for alternatives to physical court sessions. Measures such as remote sessions and remote interviews, for example, could now be used to far greater extent than before. Courts were able to process a far greater number of cases, while at the same time keeping the risk of infection between the parties involved as low as practicably possible.
An Infection Control Guide was published on 28 April 2020 that provides additional advice on how the courts may conduct cases while ensuring prudent infection control. These guidelines are of a general nature and must be adapted to the situation and premises at hand. All cases can be processed as long as the infection control measures are respected. Digital court sessions were recommended whenever possible as a satisfactory replacement for physical court sessions.
The principle of public access was challenged as a result of the aforementioned infection control measures. At the beginning of pandemic, the restrictions required compensatory solutions to safeguard the presence of the media and the public seeking justice. At that time, only a very limited number of people could be present at the courthouses at any given moment.
At the end of March 2020, one of the largest courts in the country streamed a court session (an interim court order) via YouTube for the very first time to considerable interest from the general public. This was done in order to safeguard the principle of public access, as this case concerned the courts' judicial oversight of public administration. Certain parts of a few major criminal cases have been broadcast in the past, but this was the very first time in Norway that the entire court proceedings were streamed via the internet. Approximately 5,000 people visited the session on YouTube while it was being streamed. That is quite a high number, more than would have fit into the courtroom. In pandemic times, this may be one of the alternatives for cases of great interest to the general public.
A lot has happened very quickly and a lot has been achieved during this period. It is now urgent to get started on the analysis of responses to the pandemic. The Norwegian Government has established an independent commission in order to ensure a thorough and comprehensive review and assessment of the authorities' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission will take a look at both the preparedness prior to the pandemic and how the crisis was handled. It is important to look at all aspects of the pandemic in order to identify any lessons to be learned. The commission will submit its report by the end of March 2021.
The Ministry of Justice and Public Security has requested that all bodies within the justice sector conduct such an assessment of their own handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of this work. The purpose of the assessment is to identify preliminary lessons that may help improve the handling of the pandemic. A time of crisis constitutes a golden opportunity to determine what changes are needed and how best to face a new reality. The pandemic is not over and we may be faced with new crises of a different nature, which may hit us just as hard.
We have a Constitution that establishes that the courts shall stay open and hear cases, therefore the court system must function regardless of any crisis.