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Courts now coronavirus hotspots, report warns

By Everlyne Kwamboka | June 22nd 2020
An open air court in session at the Milimani Law Courts. Health experts have recommended that courts hold sessions online. [File]

Judicial officers and other court users are at a major risk of contracting coronavirus if they continue holding open sessions, the Ministry of Health has warned.

A series of reports prepared after an evaluation of all courts in the country by the ministry warn that open court sessions expose more people to Covid-19.

The ministry has, instead, recommended that the Judiciary makes use of the modern technology to handle court cases.

For cases that must be heard in open court, the ministry advises Judiciary to take major precautionary measures, including reorganising sitting arrangements and limiting number of people allowed into the premises, to ensure social distancing.

The reports, prepared for each judicial station countrywide, come a few days after 11 court officers tested positive for Covid-19 and 118 others sent on self-quarantine in courts in Mombasa last week.

The officers were among those tested as one of the requirements for the courts to reopen.

This prompted Chief Justice David Maraga to close Mombasa courts and order that all matters be heard virtually.

Mombasa Law Society of Kenya branch Chairman Mathew Nyabena said lawyers planned to discuss the way forward with resident judge Eric Ogola today.

With the courts in Mombasa now closed, Judiciary is now reviewing some of its operations in all court stations based on the Health ministry's reports.

“Mombasa was given its report by the Ministry of Health. The dos and don’ts are used as a preventive measures, but given that the courts are more of paper users, you cannot tell whether the virus was on the files that exchange hands from one point to another,” said Anne Amadi, the Judiciary's Chief Registrar.

Fumigating courtrooms

Amadi said Mombasa law courts, the area City Court and Tononoka children’s court would be fumigated and the number of officers, especially at the registry, reduced.

“We are complying with the Ministry of Health guidelines. Reopening of courts is not going to be bracket exercise and that is why we have to keep reviewing operations from time to time,” said Amadi.

Describing the Mombasa positive Covid-19 tests as "unfortunate," the chief registrar, who invited the ministry to conduct the inspection in April, said reports for each station were prepared and forwarded to the Judiciary for action.

A report on the Supreme Court Building seen by The Standard, advises 20 judges (six in the Supreme Court and 14 in the Court of Appeal), including the Chief Justice, not to hear any case in an open court during the pandemic.

“Further, you are highly encouraged to avoid the use of the said courts by the general public during this Covid-19 pandemic period to avoid cross infection,” reads the report forwarded to the Judiciary by Dr Kepha Ombacho on behalf of the Health Principal Secretary.

If the Supreme Court or judges in Court of Appeal must hear a matter in open court, the report recommends a maximum of nine lawyers inside the chambers and that the judges’ sitting arrangement be reorganised.

At the Supreme Court, the report advises officers to use pocket microphones to avoid cross infection during court proceedings.

Surfaces in the courtroom must be disinfected during court breaks and public galleries cleared, with journalists advised to follow proceedings online.

No screening

An inspection on April 24 showed no Covid-19 screening was being conducted at the court's security gate.

The inspection team also noted that there was uncontrolled register book handling by visitors at the security desk before they were ushered into the court premises and that guards handled visitors’ identification cards without gloves.

The report also noted that there was no social distancing at the court premises.

The report dated May 18 indicates that piles of paperwork are still lying on shelves and floors.

At the Milimani law courts that handles hundreds of cases on a normal day, the report recommends that open courts and basement cells used to hold remandees and convicts be closed.

The bulk of cases at the High Court and magistrates’ courts will be heard online, save for some of criminal matters that require witnesses to testify.

Amadi said courts would handle a maximum of five criminal cases in a day and that witnesses would be given the specific dates and time to testify.

At the Court of Appeal, where judges have been hearing and determining cases online, only four judicial officers, who include the court’s registrar Moses Serem, have been serving judges and other court users.

219 cases concluded

Working from home, judges have concluded 219 of the 269 cases listed before the court between April 27 and June 12.

Serem told The Standard that in April, the judges heard 35 criminal cases filed by unrepresented appellants and that the judgments are due on July 24.

Covid 19 Time Series


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