UN expert outlines urgent steps to ensure justice systems are not paralysed by COVID-19

GENEVA (22 April 2020) ­­– The COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown measures pose special threats and challenges to an independent judiciary, said today the Special Rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán. He released seven key guidelines to ensure judges, justice workers, prosecutors and lawyers maintain functioning judicial systems.

“The COVID-19 crisis is already severely affecting the right of societies to an operative and independent judicial system. In this context, the lack of access to an independent justice opens doors to abusive behaviour and a risk of impunity,” he said.

The expert noted that as the health crisis erodes economic and social stability, and recessions loom, the risk of more violence and crime may increase. “An immediate streamlining of justice services to prioritise essential cases is needed and prosecution of minor, civil or economic cases should be postponed.”

García-Sayán also said the increased risk of coronavirus infection in crowded prisons could be lowered if pre-trial detentions were minimised and political prisoners, minor offenders and those who have served most of their terms were considered for release.

“Judges, magistrates, public prosecutors and their staff should get special health attention in COVID-19 testing programmes, given that they have to participate in hearings, interact with lawyers and be in contact with several authorities and groups,” the expert stressed.

“Innovation and online working is essential, especially by tribunals and judges who have to deal with human rights or a growing insecurity situation that is being envisaged. Lockdowns and ‘physical distancing’ shouldn’t prevent the judicial system from following due process guarantees,” said the Special Rapporteur.


Mr. Diego García-Sayán took up his functions as UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers in December 2016. He was formerly a judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for two consecutive terms. During his tenure, he was elected Vice-President of the Court (2008-2009) and President of the Court for two consecutive terms (2009-2013). He has long-standing experience working on human rights issues in a variety of settings, including for the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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