The emergency has taught us that all countries must invest more in information technology and guarantee Internet access.*
*Interview with journalist Diana Lastiri published in Mexico’s El Universal on November 12, 2020.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America’s justice systems were completely paralyzed for a few days. Mexico was no exception, and the situation left several lessons in its wake for the country’s judicial branches according to Justice Studies Center of the Americas (JSCA) Executive Director Jaime Arellano Quintana.
In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, Arellano expressed his concern that the new normal will force countries, and specifically Mexico, to have a public prosecutor’s office that functions adequately and judicial branches that privilege transparency in cases of public interest without using the pandemic as a pretext to close their doors.
He said that COVID-19 has taught us that all countries must invest in information technologies and guarantee Internet access because socioeconomic inequities were exacerbated during the health emergency.
How did justice function during the pandemic in Latin America?
-Briefly, judicial branches determined that they would continue to provide essential services for hearings about protective measures, arraignments and the release of detainees. The courts also continued to hear matters related to domestic violence and custody of minors. We believe that this role was maintained on paper because in practice there were circumstances that did not allow them to fully develop this work.
Very strong disparities developed in countries like Peru, Mexico and Argentina in the sense that in many cases local judicial officials began to make decisions on their own. The general rule was that priority services were applied differently in different regions of a country. There were even judges who began to issue very varied rulings about what should be considered priority.
How will the suspension of judicial deadlines that happened early on impact this?
-Practically every country suspended its procedural deadlines in non-essential areas such as civil and commercial justice. This mean that there was a backlog of cases to be opened in the great majority of countries.
In Mexico, the majority went to outlying judicial areas. Priority was given to arraignments and orders that a defendant be held in custody. The Public Prosecutor’s Office began to manage this more strategically because some cases began to use terms for complementary investigation and officials began to hold back decisions to charge defendants unless they were forced to do so because of constitutional guarantees.
The hearings held for the Odebrecht corruption case involving Emilio Lozoya were broadcast via WhatsApp. Is that approach ideal?
-I don’t think that the pandemic should be an excuse. On the contrary, it should be a more powerful reason to ensure the transparent, public nature of judicial activity in general and criminal matters in particular.
I do not believe that the pandemic should be used as an excuse not to hold public hearings that are of public interest. There may be technological difficulties that justify it, but in general if said obstacles do not exist, many more people can have access to videoconference hearings than normally would.
If the content cannot be broadcast for everyone, there should at least be a way for the media to access the content live so that there are representatives of the press who can inform us of what is occurring and provide complete explanations of the elements of the respective hearing.
During a state of exception or emergency like a pandemic, there should be just as much transparency if not more as long as the technical conditions and case allow for it. That reassures the public that the system is continuing to function normally and that nothing odd is happening.
How did Mexico handle cases of domestic violence and family law?
-Mexico was no different than the rest of Latin America. Domestic violence increased because of confinement and it took a long time to obtain a solution to this type of family life situation through the justice system. Other countries implemented fake call protocols to allow victims to pretend to be ordering a pizza. The person who answered the phone would be trained to understand that the victim was actually calling for help but had the abuser there. Some countries invented subtle signs that people could use in videoconferences to let authorities know that they were victims of violence, but that did not happen in Mexico. The pandemic has to teach us all to move forward with certain protocols in cases of crisis.
What will the new normal be like in the courts?
-We will return to a new normalcy or semi-normalcy because the pandemic is not over and is projected to last until the fall of 2021. That means that the courts will have to continue to use hybrid approaches.
Read the full interview here: