In the midst of the pandemic and quarantine, Uzbekistan’s electronic court system has proven its worth.
Aziza Artikova is a lawyer in Khorezm region’s Urgench city in western Uzbekistan. Most of her caseload focuses on alimony, inheritance and other matters related to domestic law. While her city’s streets are now unusually empty, there are just as many, if not more people in need of her legal assistance.
“It’s hardly surprising that when people can’t go to work or even just leave their home because of COVID-19, and finances are limited, tempers flare and conflicts arise more easily in households,” says Aziza. “Additionally, there is also the problem of people breaking quarantine rules for one reason or another, and then needing my help with legal representation.”
“Not all cases can be resolved during the quarantine, but our e-justice system certainly has helped assure people that their concerns will be addressed in due course.”
The E-SUD electronic court system was launched in 2014 by the ‘Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan’ project, implemented by USAID, UNDP and the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan. Initially installed in all 89 of Uzbekistan’s civil courts the system helped eliminate reliance on paperwork, reduced inefficient bureaucracy, and substantially improved access to justice.
In January this year, the E-SUD system was merged into the broader information-communication-technology (ICT) systems of economic, administrative and criminal courts, creating a unified electronic justice system in Uzbekistan.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Uzbekistan, this unified e-justice system has been a vital tool to keep the national judicial system operational through the quarantine.
When there is no leaving Home, e-justice is the only option
“E-justice systems are demonstrating their true value as a way for citizens to seek justice without violating quarantine,” says Doniyorbek Eshchanov, a judge on civil cases from the Romitan inter-district court in the Bukhara region. “While we’re currently only able to hear the most urgent cases in court, we have still been able to receive applications and citizens can be assured that their concerns are being heard.”
Courts are not currently holding hearings on claims submitted digitally due to the COVID-19 pandemic unless they are urgent. The cases still being heard in court are related to domestic violence or other cases involving the risk of people’s physical safety.
With significant fines in place for breaches to quarantine rules, community-level lawyers like Aziza Artikova are also dealing with administrative cases against those accused of breaking social distancing rules.
“Every case submitted through our e-justice systems will be paid due attention,” assures Judge Eshchanov. “Because of E-SUD’s integration across the courts, all lawyers, court staff, and judges like myself have been able to work from home. My fellow judges and I are reviewing all claims and requests that have been submitted, and cases that are not urgent will be heard after the COVID-19 quarantine ends. People who have submitted these claims should feel confident that despite the current reality, everyone will have access to justice.”
Beyond the integrated e-justice systems, other digital tools introduced to Uzbekistan’s courts are becoming increasingly important. Lawyers like Aziza Artikova have been able to make full use of online communications to engage with their clients from a distance, while legal professionals can now collaborate with each other from their home offices.
Free legal advice and support is also being provided digitally to the public. Students and professors operating the free legal clinic at the Tashkent State University of Law have continued to offer legal support through a dedicated Telegram channel, while other legal information particularly important during the quarantine is being shared through mass media.
From Aziza’s point of view, the current lockdown could have been much harder on citizens if e-justice wasn’t available. “The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be passing, but the quarantine is clearly not over yet and we are waiting to see how this situation plays out,” Aziza concludes. “E-SUD will keep providing justice for all, and it will continue to be my pleasure to serve my community.”