A remote trial at Chisinau Court of Appeal
The videoconferencing system demonstrates its efficiency in Moldova especially in a time of unprecedented crisis, when in-person hearings are discouraged in order to curtail the spread of COVID-19. A modern and secure videoconferencing system, which USAID’s Open Justice Project procured and installed in 2018 in every Moldovan court, allows courts to continue to stay operational and hear remotely the most urgent criminal cases. From March 18 (immediately after the state of emergency was declared) to the end of April 2020, Moldovan courts used the videoconferencing system to conduct over 600 remote court hearings. Overall, from November 2018 when the system was first piloted to the end of April 2020, the courts conducted approximately 4,850 court trials by video, saving approximately 2,961,600 Moldovan lei (around 165,000 USD) on transporting and escorting prison inmates to court hearings. The videoconferencing system has proven especially invaluable in allowing courts to operate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alexandru Zmeu, a defense attorney in Chisinau, has defended dozens of clients in court. When Moldova suspended most trials in March 2020 due to COVID-19, he was concerned that those under arrest could face lengthy delays while in detention, placing their rights to a fair and speedy trial at risk. Mr. Zmeu was very impressed when Moldova’s courts used the videoconferencing system provided by USAID’s Open Justice Project to conduct remote hearings, decide urgent detention cases, and deliver justice during the pandemic.
“The videoconferencing equipment allowed me to represent my client who was under a 30-day arrest in the penitentiary. The court granted my request to release my client. Thus, the remote trial helped my client avoid a lengthy detention without legal review. Now, videoconferencing is the only solution for the smooth running of justice and the system should be used even after the emergency period is over, for examining more types of cases, including civil cases,” Zmeu said.
Open Justice procured and installed videoconferencing equipment in all 20 Moldovan courts in 2018, following a feasibility study on the implementation of the videoconferencing system, which revealed that the National Penitentiary Administration spends about 1.4 million MDL ($80,000) annually on transporting inmates to court hearings and trials.
After the successful piloting of the videoconferencing equipment in November 2018 in the courts and penitentiaries, Open Justice assisted the Ministry of Justice and the Superior Council of Magistracy to develop and implement the regulatory framework for remote trials and trained 250 court and penitentiary personnel on how to use the videoconferencing equipment. Following the successful piloting, the Ministry of Justice purchased and installed 17 videoconferencing equipment sets in all penitentiaries in December 2018.
In March 2020, when the Parliament declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USAID’s Open Justice project developed a comprehensive assessment that identified immediate opportunities and recommendations for expanding the use of video conferencing to broader categories of cases than initially identified. The Project will discuss the implementation of recommendations with representatives of the Moldovan Ministry of Justice, so that concrete activities can start in the near future.
The use of the videoconferencing system enabled the delivery of justice even during a pandemic when most institutions were closed down and public services halted. Significantly, it has ensured that those held in detention were not denied their rights. Extending this benefit to other types of legal procedures is a potential next step for a justice system in the process of reform and modernization.
Launched in 2017, the USAID’s Open Justice project supports the Moldovan government in their efforts to bolster a more efficient and transparent justice sector. Implementation of the new Integrated Case Management System, the launch of new Court Web Portals, as well as the modernization of the websites of the Superior Council of Magistrates (SCM) and the Agency for Court of Administration are just some of the major achievements obtained with USAID’s Open Justice project since May 2017. The focus of the Project’s activities for the next few months will be to help the Moldovan judiciary implement activities to expand the number and types of remote hearings, which will enhance access to justice and transparency, and ensure the right to a fair trial for all.