Covid-19 has been the greatest global peace-time event to occur in recent decades and has caused significant changes worldwide to almost every aspect of daily life. Naturally, Covid-19 has had major impacts on the judiciary and the way in which justice is achieved. Covid-19 has challenged and changed legal processes, courthouse procedures, international justice and the interpretation of rights, with the full impact yet to be known or properly understood. In this panel, the speakers discussed not only the impact of Covid-19 in the present context, but the long-term implications for the future of the judiciary and the wider legal profession.

The panel led off with a facilitated discussion on pandemic preparation and response between Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008 and current Co-Chair of the World Health Organisation’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response Committee, and Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Associate Professor of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University of Auckland. In response to a question of whether the end of the pandemic was in sight, both noted the problems with inequity, sufficient access to resources and political will. Given the global nature of the pandemic, these problems have come to the surface and even been exacerbated, with some countries able to put measures in place to cope with the virus and others, such as India, not. Helen Clark noted that there had been failures at every single point in time, with most countries taking a “wait and see” approach to implementation of pandemic response measures. It was only on 11 March 2020, when the director-general of the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, that most countries began to take the virus seriously. It has been even harder to sustain the response to the ongoing virus, with the issue becoming one of whether there is sufficient political will to muster the resources and the actions necessary to eliminate the virus. As a result, we have seen varying degrees of response to the virus by individual countries, which raises questions as to the global ability to eradicate Covid-19. Dr Wiles noted that the ideal response would be one tailored to each country and that contained a combination of measures to bring down transmission and prevent transmission into other animals.

The discussion then moved to the inequities seen and aggravated by the pandemic. Helen Clark noted that an equitable vaccine rollout would be critical as, the longer the virus rages on, the greater the variants that may arise and the greater the need to update vaccines accordingly. The differential impacts of Covid-19 have been felt on multiple levels, with the virus exacerbating every existing health, social and economic inequality. The most marginalised groups in society are more likely to experience job losses and difficulties with access to healthcare services. Another health-inequity raised by Dr Wiles was the number of vaccines at the market and the small group of companies who control manufacturing and hold access to that IP. Helen Clark identified the need to build micro-manufacturing centres across the world and closer to where outbreaks are occurring in order to avoid the massive distribution problems that has already been seen. Both Helen Clark and Dr Wiles concluded by identifying that, while vaccines alone will not necessary eliminate the pandemic, the issue will be one of whether the world has learnt its lesson from Covid-19 to stop outbreaks of highly infectious pathogens turning into pandemics in the future.

The conference then heard from three speakers across the world, each of whom discussed a different impact of Covid-19. The first panellist was the Hon. Emily L San Gaspar-Gito from the Philippines. Judge Gaspar-Gito is currently the Presiding Judge of a Regional Trial Court in Manila and has 22 years of experience working in the judiciary. Her talk centred on the experience of the family as the hardest hit unit but also the world’s saving grace during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a focus on the loss of Filipino healthcare workers. Judge Gaspar-Gito noted that family is the source of many people’s happiness and shared identity, with the real impact of the virus and the loss to families worldwide yet to be measured. Covid-19 has not only resulted in the deaths and illnesses of many loved ones, but has also impacted families in other ways, primarily through a loss of income and economic hardships. She identified the ways in which the Filipino Government has responded to these challenges, such as by enacting the Bayanihan Act, which provides an emergency subsidy to low income households. Other programmes, such as the Social Amelioration Program, Hazard Pay and Special Risk Allowance, have been implemented to ease the economic and fiscal challenges faced by families impacted by the virus. We have seen similar measures be enacted in other countries, such as the Covid-19 Wage Subsidy here in New Zealand.

The second panellist was the Hon. Dr Hongyu Shen, Deputy Chief Judge of the Fourth Civil Division of the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC) and senior judge of the International Commercial Court of the SPC. Judge Shen discussed the response of the Chinese courts to Covid-19, in particular the innovation and implementation of new technologies to change the way court processes are carried out. In 2020, China adopted a number of initiatives such as the Chinese Mobile Micro Court, Internet Courts and other virtual courts to enable hearings to be held virtually and to prevent the spread of the virus through contact at courthouses. Some of these electronic-based processes were already in place prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, such as the online mediation platform for copyright disputes which, in 2020 alone, allowed for 4.24 million cases to be settled virtually. Judge Shen noted that, while justice does not stop during a pandemic, the availability and implementation of these virtual technologies by Chinese courts and legal systems enabled justice to continue to be served efficiently and effectively during the pandemic.

The last panellist was the Hon. Ayesha Malik, judge of the Lahore High Court in Pakistan. She discussed the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic for the justice system, noting that these unprecedented times have altered our sense of normalcy, with various measures such as lockdown, social distancing and wearing masks quickly becoming the ordinary. Over the past year the judiciary has been particularly faced with the challenge of keeping courts open, with many legal systems unequipped to cope with new health measures. Unlike the technology-driven courts in China, the legal system in Pakistan is entirely paper-based — the files were hard-copy, orders were physically signed and papers handled by multiple people. When the pandemic arose, the Pakistani judiciary were required to innovate and work in new ways. The High Court adopted new measures such as the reduction of staff to essentials only, the appearance of only one advocate in the courtroom at a time and the implementation of a judicial rotation system. Judge Malik reflected on these changes, noting that the critical lesson learnt was that court systems must undertake strategic planning now to make legal processes more efficient, less crowded and less dependent on physical presence. She concluded by noting that technology is no longer an option, but a reality for all legal systems. Members of the judiciary and the wider legal profession must be prepared and trained to adapt to new electronic processes and alternative dispute resolution methods so that access to justice may be maintained in times like these.

As evident from the presentations of Judges Shen and Malik, the adaptability of the court systems to change has been a key indicator of how well legal systems responded to the effects of Covid-19. In particular, the ability to reduce the number of participants in court hearings and to update court processes to electronic systems has been critical. This has required active participation by the judiciary, court staff, the legal profession and the parties involved. As noted by all the speakers, especially Helen Clark and Dr Wiles, it is inevitable that there will be outbreaks of highly infectious pathogens in the future. Our legal systems must be fit for purpose and resilient enough to withstand future challenges like the Covid‑19 pandemic to ensure that justice continues to be delivered and the rule of law upheld for all.

Reported by Lucy Kenner and Hannah Short