COVID-19 Justice Campaign

The COVID-19 Justice Campaign is a global coalition to resist and roll-back unaccountable criminal justice powers created during the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global trend of increased criminal justice powers. In many countries, the police have been given new powers to detain people, control where they can go, and even restrict what they can say. Often, the oversight of policing and detention has been weakened, leaving people vulnerable to police abuse.

The COVID-19 Justice Campaign brings together international partners to resist and rollback unaccountable criminal justice powers.

From March to November 2020, Fair Trials tracked how criminal justice systems and fair trial rights were affected by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 Justice Project received hundreds of updates from around the world, which can be found in our resource hub, and which have informed the COVID-19 Justice Campaign.

COVID-19 and the courts

COVID-19 has seriously impacted the functioning of courts around the world. Even during a public health crisis, courts must be able to fulfil their essential activities and provide justice. These include dealing with urgent matters such as reviewing the lawfulness of arrests or continued detentions.

As a result of court closures and reduced operations, proceedings have either been delayed or accelerated. In most countries, only what have been considered urgent cases have been dealt with. This has resulted in increasing backlogs of cases in many jurisdictions. In addition, people held in pre-trial detention [LINK resource hub News/Covid/pre-trial detention] have also seen their detention prolonged. This not only violates fundamental human rights, but it also contributes significantly to prison overcrowding.

Many countries have procedural laws which set strict deadlines on the various stages of criminal proceedings. In an effort to tackle the inevitable delays, there has been an increased use of remote justice tools such as video and audio conferencing. Read our guide on safeguarding defendants’ rights during remote proceedings. We have also called for countries to conduct assessments of their impact, given the apparent interest in using videolinks more permanently.

The reduced activity in courts and lockdown measures have impacted extradition processes and cross-border justice.

Covid-19 and defence rights

In many countries, physical access to courts and police stations has been restricted, leading to a greater use of video-link and telephone hearings. In practice, these restrictions and the lack of properly functioning technology has been having a serious impact on defence rights.  Read our guide with recommendations to safeguard defendants’ rights in remote criminal proceedings.

Access to a lawyer, to information, and to interpretation services have all been severely affected. These rights are essential to guarantee the fairness of proceedings. To ensure statements obtained during questioning by police are given fairly, suspects should be able to speak with their lawyers in confidence before the interview and to have a lawyer’s support during questioning. Fair Trials has produced materials for lawyers to use to advocate for their clients’ right to legal advice (and for remedies where it has been denied).

Social distancing and the increased use of remote justice tools can have a greater negative impact on defendants who need access to interpretation services. The right to interpretation necessitates a quality of interpretation which enables the accused not only to understand but also to “actively participate” in proceedings.

Covid-19 and detention

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the structural deficiencies and systemic inequalities in our prison systems, and the urgent need to reform them.

Overcrowding is a long-standing problem in many prisons across the globe and has made social distancing difficult or impossible. Prisons have very quickly become epicentres for the pandemic, putting the lives and health of prisoners and staff at risk. Many countries have taken important preliminary steps to reduce prison overcrowding including by offering early releases.

However, these programmes have often excluded people held in pre-trial detention. Their detention has even been prolonged due to court closures and delays. This not only violates the right to liberty and the presumption of innocence, but it also contributes significantly to prison overcrowding. We also published recommendations to reduce the number of people being held in pre-trial detention who make up a huge proportion of the prison population in many countries. For lawyers, we’ve produced template applications for the release of people in pre-trial detention, based on the relevant human rights arguments in Europe and Latin America.

Prisons conditions have also worsened during the pandemic. Lockdown measures have increased detainees’ isolation and affected their mental health. For example, detainees have not been able to have visitors, and in some cases have not been provided with alternative means of communication. Read what prisoners told us about life on remand in the UK during lockdown. In Latin America, this is a particular issue, because it is often families that provide detainees with food and sanitary products. Fair Trials and the Europe-wide network of civil society organisations JUSTICIA have set out recommendations for protecting human rights in places of detention in Europe during the COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic has also disrupted prison monitoring programmes, making it difficult to assess whether appropriate steps have been taken to protect the life and health of prisoners and to document any wrongdoing.

Policing and COVID-19

In response to the threat of COVID-19 to public health, countries around the world have dramatically increased police powers, implemented new criminal laws and established widespread digital surveillance regimes. Many of these new emergency powers and laws have been rushed in with little or no democratic scrutiny, have no time limit, and may continue to be in force long after COVID-19 ceases to be a serious threat to public health.

This new – and often vaguely defined – authority has resulted in excessive policing and widespread criminalisation, with unlawful arrests, prosecutions and convictions for alleged COVID-19 related offences. Law enforcement have also given out millions of fines and other out of court disposals, which have forced many people into severe hardship in already very challenging financial circumstances. In light of these events, Fair Trials and the Europe-wide network of civil society organisations JUSTICIA have issued a statement against the disproportionate use of criminalisation and called for the review of all charges, convictions and fines in relation to alleged COVID-19 offences.

States have also hurriedly implemented widespread surveillance initiatives, such as ‘contact-tracing’ apps which track people’s movements, location and contact with others, or other mobile phone tracking. In many countries, these have been brought in without sufficient transparency, effective safeguards against abuse or remedies. This information could be used in relation to new COVID-19 criminal offences, and potentially in other criminal investigations or proceedings. Fair Trials has produced a guide to assist criminal defence lawyers in challenging the use of this data in criminal proceedings.

The misuse and abuse of these new extended powers and new criminal offences, alongside opaque and unaccountable surveillance measures, undermine the rule of law and fairness in the criminal justice system. Many of these powers are excessive, unnecessary and disproportionate, and may infringe the right to a fair trial.