The unprecedented situation created by COVID-19 has directly impacted people’s right to seek essential services. In Bangladesh, one year into the pandemic portions of public sector management remained closed, including formal courts. This has significantly hampered the ability of citizens to have access to several fundamental rights guaranteed by law, including assurance of inclusive access to institutional support. While countries around the globe adopt stringent measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, like many Lower-to-Middle-Income-Countries (LMICs), in Bangladesh a localized and differentiated approach is necessary to reflect the diverse needs of people.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Bangladesh has seen a steady increase in public management requests, increasing incidence of non-payment of salaries, loss of jobs, retrenchments, domestic violence, bankruptcies, grievances regarding violence and discrimination reflect a lack of institutional capacity amidst an overwhelming surge in demand for governance.
Towards a Solution
With the aim of upholding the rights of citizens and the legal system, with the support from the Government of Bangladesh and UNDP Bangladesh, the Aspire to innovate (a2i) programme has developed “MyCourt” which is essentially a Virtual Court. Since its launch, on 11th May 2020, MyCourt, has been implemented swiftly and efficiently across the country. It enjoys the highest level of support from the judicial leadership and the Government of Bangladesh. The president of the country passed an ordinance on virtual courts in less than two weeks, a process which can take months during usual circumstances.
While the primary objective of virtual courts is to address grievances through local administration, it carries with it the strong potential to transform the Government, and ensure the achievement of SDGs 16 (peace and justice), target 16.6 (Develop effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels) in Bangladesh. It has unleashed, much-needed novel thinking and created a wave of motivation within the public sector management. The digitalization and simplification of processes have led to the elimination complicated and cumbersome practices which had no added value in delivering services, enhancing transparency and efficiency. As an example, a2i has worked to implement digitized bail application processes, to resolve internal confusions and contradictions, reduce application time, increase the number of hearings, while confirming the results of the applications.
These important changes in the judicial process system require the the application of technological advances to existing activities. These include digitizing granular administrative functions, the high court, and the hearing process, set up a new complaint management process, develop content and workshops, track and monitor the dashboard development, ensure integration with implementing agencies in law enforcement, creation of customized portal accounts for civil servants of different managerial responsibilities, development of mobile app versions of the dashboard, train civil servants and facilitators, ensure integration of security, privacy and responsible data management systems and the integration of documentation and storage software and hardware. These activities helped with the establishment of the e-Governance Framework, integration of Digital System through institutionalization, and institutional capacity development for virtual service delivery.
Thus far 139 lower courts and three high court benches are exercising their jurisdiction to hear a bail application through MyCourt. From its inception, the virtual courts have heard a total of 107,037 petitions, granted bail to 54,677 accused persons, including 651 children, across the country. A total of 945 judges, court staff, officials from the Attorney General’s office, lawyers were trained on MyCourt, reducing the Government’s operational cost, observing standardized operating procedures implementation, and ensuring delivery of services. It is a one-off investment that moves the courtrooms into the 21st century and pays off in spades. Time, staff, money, and fuel savings also give impetus for courtroom technology.
This project can be easily replicable to any other countries who wants to strengthen institutions struggling with weak enforcement. It enables individual governments to keep the justice system moving in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted almost all processes in every country around the world. This solution has helped the justice system more become transparent and efficient and eased the procedures for citizens. a2i team can provide technical guidance in implementing the initiatives in any other country.