COVID-19 Series: The impact of the crisis on lawyers in the Dominican Republic
The COVID-19 crisis poses huge challenges to human rights and the rule of law. The pandemic also affects lawyers all around the world in their daily professional activities, which causes a great impact on the legal profession. Lawyers for Lawyers has created a COVID-19 series to provide insight into the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on lawyers all around the world.
This article in the COVID-19 series covers the insights shared with Lawyers for Lawyers by José Santana, a lawyer from the Dominican Republic. Mr. Santana is a lawyer with more than 18 years of experience. He is the Director of the Santana Jerez Abogado private practice law firm. In the beginning of his career, Mr. Santana focused on human rights defence.
“With the arrival of the pandemic, there have been great changes to social life throughout the world; people have had to remain in their homes for more than two months, isolated from the social life that they knew, enjoyed and took for granted until recently. Now, that does not mean that society has been paralyzed, it does not mean that crimes and infractions of any kind have simply stopped, of course not! On the contrary, they have become much worse because of the limitations caused by the pandemic.
Similarly, justice operators, and especially lawyers, have to continue to pay their bills as accounts have also not stopped. In the Dominican Republic, lawyers are experiencing a true economic pandemic. The justice system has practically come to a halt and is only dealing with matters of extreme importance, all other matters are being dealt with through a virtual platform that at the time the pandemic started was still being developed.
In the Dominican Republic, the Judiciary is forcing all lawyers and other system operators to use virtual reality as the only tool when dealing with and resolving legal matters. Also the parties involved, namely: defendants, victims and witnesses, are now subjected to a virtual reality completely unknown to them until now . Now, it is only fair to make it clear that virtual reality has some very positive aspects in the administration of justice, the problem is to establish it without any prior experience of use with enough time for its proper management, as well as establishing it as the only means of accessing Justice. These are problems that go beyond the pandemic and we must achieve fundamental and procedural rights.
In the administrative sphere, the use of technology is welcome and highly appreciated, since it reduces time spent and expenses, however, when it comes to administering justice in courtrooms, technology is not so desirable as, instead of being an ally, it can become a threat to lawyers.
Below we specify some of the problems and special situations that lawyers now have to deal with when using virtual hearings as the only means of delivering justice.
Virtual hearings sound good, and perhaps thinking about settling a lawsuit from the comfort of your home is a great idea that has not been possible until now. However, the truth is that to access a virtual audience, you need a very basic raw material and that is the Internet. Despite the fact that for many today the internet is taken for granted, the truth is that in the Dominican Republic, having good quality internet to participate in a virtual audience is not common. Many lawyers use the Wi-Fi network provided by the state in certain areas of the country, but this network is not of sufficient quality to be used in the workplace.
The reality is that lawyers have to finance their own legal proceedings. So if lawyers do not have internet of the required quality, they will not be able to participate in them. The situation is complicated if we think, for example, of the attorney for the accused, or the victim, who must also have the appropriate internet; in such cases, not only could there be endless deferrals but also the rights of the parties could be violated.
The quality of the virtual system
Given that the virtual reality system has come into operation so abruptly and is still being developed, its quality is not optimal. For example, there are some bugs that need correcting, the user experience is poor and the audio quality is not appropriate for a true litigation process. Sometimes, several people speak at the same time, which assumes that the system fails to allow for moderation, in addition, the informality of the spaces (which are not the law firms) are not solemn enough as to impart proper justice; on other occasions the parties involved participate from their cell phones and there is a lot of background noise.
All of this detracts from the lawyer and makes his work much more expensive, and as many clients do not understand how the system works, they think that the lawyer has mishandled their case.
In criminal matters there is the principle of immediacy, which assumes that the Judge must have direct contact with both the parties and the evidence, something that does not occur in a virtual hearing; thus, it is foreseeable that the witnesses will be manipulated in the middle of the hearing, as well as the original documentary evidence that is in the hands of the prosecution.
On the other hand, as it is quite easy to maintain parallel communication with all the members of the court, as well as with all the parties involved, this could mean that situations of manipulation or bribery arise in the course of the virtual process.
There is also a special situation in the case of tax payments and administrative proceedings that has also made the work of lawyers involved with them more expensive; for example, not all taxes can be paid online, thus, those taxes that need to be filed in person with the local administration require an appointment that usually takes more than 15 days to obtain; This of course has an impact on the work of lawyers since clients always want their processes to be carried out as soon as possible.
Likewise, administrative legal/judicial processes require a prior appointment which are granted more than 15 days in advance; this situation has led many clients to choose to postpone their proceedings until further notice.
Claims from clients
Added to all this are the claims of the clients, who do not understand that it is the justice system that sets the rules. Clients are pressuring lawyers to pay attention to their affairs, and lawyers are finding themselves at a crossroads.
In many cases, this is resulting in the loss of clients who are dissatisfied and look for other ways to resolve their issues.
In short, the situation of lawyers in the Dominican Republic has resulted in the personal bankruptcy of many, the loss of many clients and the increase in the economic problems conditions of the majority. The legal community has asked the judiciary to reopen the courts with appropriate sanitary measures, because as long as the courts remain closed, the professional life of lawyers is very badly affected.
The health situation in the Dominican Republic is going from bad to worse and even though the President of the Supreme Court of Justice has said that from July 28 the courts will reopen, there is much doubt about whether this will actually happen. The President of The Republic has now asked Congress for 45 more days to decree a State of Emergency due to the outbreak caused by the reopening”.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Lawyers for Lawyers.
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