Court cases in Mauritius are traditionally heard in open court with legal advisers, litigants, witnesses as well as the court staff in attendance. In regular circumstances, the public also has physical access to the courts and the administrative sections during office hours. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges to previous methods and pushed the judiciary to expand its virtual operations.
The Government of Mauritius initiated a lockdown on 20 March 2020 under section 79 of the Public Health Act to curb the spread of COVID-19. It is an extraordinary measure that could limit or suspend fundamental rights and freedoms. All public and private businesses were closed, but the Courts continued operations as one of the 'essential services' for the hearing of urgent cases.
Can judges wear masks in court trials? COVID-19 presents us with a novel question that demonstrates a conflict of values in this time.
If trials contribute to the spread of the virus, public trust in the judiciary could be undermined. It goes beyond the judicial duties of a judge if performing those duties poses a direct threat to the judge's life or health.
However, the timely exercise of the judicial function may be more important than ever. According to the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, a judge shall perform all judicial duties with reasonable promptness. In the Republic of Korea, instead of compulsory and full-scale lockdown, the government instead has imposed obligatory self-quarantine only on high-risk groups.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the spread of COVID-19 an international health emergency. All countries have also taken action against the emergence and spread of the pandemic and the subsequent health emergency. Most countries have declared states of emergency and adopted restrictive measures for human movement, such as closing air, land and sea borders, as well as in some cases, compulsory social isolation.
These measures include the restriction of some fundamental rights recognized by the states in their respective constitutions.
On 6 January 2020, Harvey Weinstein walked into a New York courtroom to face five charges of rape and sexual assault. Three years since the #MeToo movement began, more and more people are speaking out about harassment and abuse. The legal profession is at the forefront of this evolving movement, inherently tasked with determining the scope of the law as it relates to bullying and sexual harassment.
Yet the legal profession itself is not immune from these concerns. In May 2019, the International Bar Association (IBA) published its landmark report "Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession". The largest survey of its kind conducted by the legal profession, the report details the responses of almost 7,000 respondents from 135 countries.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to the forefront the weaknesses of criminal justice systems across the globe to ensure access to justice. Many states have resorted to closing courthouses and delaying proceedings as social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the virus. A key common feature of these measures is to keep defendants away from courthouses and even away from their lawyers. However, a defendant's right to be tried in person in an open court is a fundamental component of the right to a fair trial enshrined in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.