Covid19 and government responses in facing the pandemic have conditioned the way in which the administration of justice is organised in Latin America.
The confinement and social distancing measures applied in response to the pandemic have produced differing effects. They pose challenges and open up opportunities for the institutions responsible for law enforcement.
With the aim of exchanging information and experiences, on 20 May, 30 representatives from 17 Public Prosecutor’s Offices from Latin America and Spain gathered in a virtual meeting held within the framework of the EL PAcCTO programme’s COVID Justice Channel.
Impact of ICT in the field of justice
The justice systems in the region have had to adapt their organisational processes to the implemented confinement and social distancing measures. The most urgent processes were prioritised and others were paralysed. Teleworking was promoted due to the difficulties in applying the biosecurity measures required in offices in response to the pandemic. Also, the use of video conferences by the judges and the activation of electronic communications to channel complaints, for hearings of detainees and requests for assistance. All are tools that, in many cases, were already available and are being used by the justice systems in the region.
Among the effects mentioned by the participants, those of an organisational type stand out. Mainly related to the rapid adaptation and exponential increase in the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in judicial processes. All with positive effects in terms of efficiency and agility in responding to citizens.
However, there are differences between countries. For some prosecutors, this adaptation has not been widespread. In others, the processes remain face-to-face although the documents are being digitised to continue with activities. One of the challenges in this regard has to do with the digital divide within countries and with the change in organisational culture within institutions.
This opens up opportunities to rethink the need to leave paper behind. Other challenges include obtaining digital evidence, how to administer justice remotely and exploring the use of the social networks. Useful tools for the administration of justice.
The importance of inter-institutional and international cooperation
During the pandemic, all but the most urgent requests for assistance were paralysed. Direct or informal cooperation between public prosecutor’s offices has been timely and recognised at the judicial level due to the complexity of formal legal assistance. Important investigations have been maintained that have required cooperation with other countries.
This has led to a request to encourage more countries in the region to adhere to the Budapest Convention. The aim is to promote more effective and efficient cooperation to tackle cybercrime and internet crime. Also to promote the electronic transmission of requests for international legal cooperation within the framework of the COMJIB Medellin Convention. In this area, the EL PAcCTO Programme is implementing a ICT tool to manage requests for international judicial assistance, inspired by the Prontuario programme, to subsequently begin implementation in the countries of the region
The virtual meeting highlighted the opportunity to further exploit the inter-institutional cooperation that is already being seen within the framework of the AIAMP cooperation network, which is currently collecting and cataloguing in a publication the best practices that are being used between prosecutors in the region. There is also a need to explore greater interconnection between AIAMP networks and other networks, as well as groups within the macro criminal justice system.
The changing face of crime during confinement
The lockdown, as well as the increasingly extensive use of the internet to establish working, social and leisure relationships, has increased the number of some types of crime. Such is the case of offences related to cybercrime; fraud and financial crimes; crimes against public administrations, especially since the processes shortened by the emergency open possibilities for corruption; drugs and organised crime; crimes related to the health measures imposed by governments, the treatment of fake news and its effects that demand specific regulation. Especially widespread and worrying in the region is the increase in gender violence.
Responses to the evolution of crime in countries have been varied. For example, in Brazil, working groups have been created to support those prosecutors who are dealing with computer crimes. Including when they have to talk to internet service and communications security companies. In Panama, institutional committees have been created on issues related to COVID19. Good practices have also been proposed for the Ministry of Security such as the use of technology platforms for complaints from citizens and control systems for health measures.
There are still questions about the tools that the public prosecutor’s offices are using and how they are planning to return to the new normal. The possibility of establishing internal communication channels to share documentation, as well as the challenges of coordination within each country and of cooperation with other countries. In short, this is an opportunity to learn lessons or good practices to face future crisis or pandemic situations.