Like all other parts of public life, the administration of justice and access to legal remedies and dispute resolution have been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The notes series ‘Rule of Law in the time of COVID-19’ provides a perspective from the field of how the justice system has been affected by the pandemic and how national justice actors are responding and adapting to the situation. By documenting responses and practices by those working in some of the world’s most complex environments, the notes seek to provide a better understanding of opportunities and challenges for promoting the rule of law during this extraordinary time.
The notes series aims to provide an in-country snapshot from the perspective of IDLO’s country offices.
Jordan was among the first countries in the Middle East to introduce systematic measures to respond to COVID-19. The Government of Jordan moved swiftly to mitigate the spread of the virus, protect public health and provide necessary medical treatment for those infected, in addition to maintaining essential public services. A tough lockdown helped to contain the disease and keep the number of recorded cases low.
Jordan, nonetheless, faces significant challenges in its fight against the virus, especially due to the country’s demographics and lack of natural and economic resources. The country’s population includes a large number of Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Only a small fraction of refugees lives in camps where they are registered and receive humanitarian aid; many refugees live outside the camps and are part of the informal economy. The COVID-19 shock puts additional pressure on an economy which had already been struggling with high unemployment and the impact of the refugee crises in Syria and Iraq.
In late January, the Government of Jordan formed a committee of healthcare professionals and government officials to coordinate action against COVID-19. The Ministry of Health developed plans to contain the virus and established treatment protocols. Public communication and awareness campaigns were launched to inform citizens of testing and treatment facilities. The armed forces, along with the other security forces, were employed to deliver supplies such as food, water, oil and other necessities to various communities including refugee camps.
On 18 March 2020, King Abdallah enforced the National Defence Law of 1992 that gave the government sweeping powers to implement a state of emergency. The government imposed curfews, closed international and domestic borders, banned public events and gatherings, and put in place a strict social distancing policy. Economic activities were halted though the food and dairy industries along with others such as pharmaceuticals were allowed to continue some of their operations. On 27 April, after 40 days of lockdown, some restrictions were lifted and businesses were subsequently allowed to reopen.
The government also allocated emergency funds to support the health system. Moreover, in late April the World Bank, under its COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Program, approved a US$20 million grant to help the Ministry of Health in preventing and detecting COVID-19 and strengthening public health preparedness.
Socio-economic dimension of COVID-19
The economic impact of the lockdown and other emergency measures has been severe. According to the Minister of Finance, GDP will drop by at least 3.4 per cent in 2020. The lockdown resulted in a drastic fall of economic activity, which in turn affected the government’s 2020 budget priorities. Revenue from vital sectors such as tourism and tax returns declined, and the private sector began to suffer interruptions to their businesses. Vulnerable groups such as daily-wage workers and poor people were however expected to suffer the most.
To mitigate the impact on the population, the government launched various measures to ensure social protection and development. In addition, the government ramped up various economic programs to support households and businesses. Measures included the allocation of 50 per cent of maternity insurance revenues to provide material support to vulnerable groups including the elderly and the sick; the establishment of price ceilings on essential products; a reduction in social security contributions from private sector institutions (from 21.75 to 5.25 per cent); and postponing the collection of sales tax on all domestic sectors and imports related to health and medical supplies until the end of the year. The Central Bank also reduced most of the policy rates and allowed banks to postpone credit facilities and payment schedules of affected sectors. Moreover, the government established a relief fund named Himmat Watan (“a nation’s effort”) for local and foreign donations to combat COVID-19.
The lockdown has also had a significant impact on domestic violence. According to a poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in April 2020, 34 per cent of those interviewed suffered from domestic violence during the lockdown, an increase of 16 per cent compared to the period before the pandemic. More than half of those affected said that they did not take any action, while 54 per cent did not know where to ask for support.
Impact of COVID-19 on the justice system
Ministry of Justice
Employees of the Ministry of Justice were sent back to work on 26 May 2020 after having been put on national holiday for over eight weeks. Some employees with specific responsibilities, such as those related to court administration and preparing COVID-19-related directives, have continued to work from the office. The Ministry designated a hotline to respond to public questions on the emergency legislation. Inquiries have been received from the public through this hotline, especially in relation to the organization of labor rights and obligations for the private sector in light of suspending application of the Labour Law since the enforcement of the 1992 Defense Law.
On 15 March, the Judicial Council announced an early judicial recess in light of the pandemic. Courts have been closed but have continued to deal with emergency issues. Chief judges were asked to designate judges and other court officials to perform such emergency functions, based on the needs of the respective court. Administrative staff attendance was reduced by 50 per cent in all courts. In late April, the Judicial Council exempted judges, public prosecutors and court enforcement officers from the national holiday which was extended until the end of May. This allowed criminal and administrative courts to continue hearings while dealing with the shortage of administrative cadres. Virtual criminal trials were held to extend detention periods where required. Civil court hearings were adjourned until after the end of May, except for summary proceedings. Lawyers were also allowed to pursue cases from their offices. A judicial committee was formed to review all electronic court services and address any complications faced during the outbreak. Moreover, the government issued an order to suspend limitation periods related to court or other legal proceedings until after the lockdown. The Judicial Institute – responsible for professional development of judges – temporarily closed its offices; training programs for judges were suspended.
The Public Prosecution continued to operate during lockdown, including on the follow-up of breaches of curfew orders. In late April, the Public Prosecution was exempted from the national holiday and requested to continue legal proceedings, considering the shortage of administrative cadres. A number of prosecutors were designated in all courts to prosecute violations of defense orders and other summary proceedings, and extend the duration of detention and follow-up on procedures related to juvenile cases. The Public Prosecution has been able to prosecute more than 20,000 violations of defense orders since the start of the outbreak.
Security forces and prisons
Police and security forces, including police stations, continued to work and oversaw the enforcement of the lockdown, together with the armed forces. The government closed all prisons to public visits to reduce the risk of infection. Moreover, the government, in coordination with the judiciary and other relevant authorities, released certain administrative detainees and detainees in pretrial detention on misdemeanor charges, in which personal rights have been dropped, and postponed the imprisonment of persons unable to settle their debts. Police family protection units across the country continued to receive complaints and inquiries via their hotlines and web pages; they also provided remote legal and psycho-social support to victims of domestic violence, including those referred by civil society organizations.
Legal aid providers
Due to the curfew, civil society legal aid providers had to close their offices and continued to work from home. However, some legal aid organizations continued to provide remote legal services through virtual tools and hotlines. Legal aid providers also remained engaged in discussions around challenges created by COVID-19 and lockdown measures, especially those related to the legal and procedural framework for legal aid and issue of recovery. Women activists continue to monitor and document the psychological, social and economic effects of COVID-19 and the lockdown on women. Furthermore, a group of civil society organizations developed a paper with recommendations to deal with issues arising from the narrow definition of “household” under Jordanian law, which results in the exclusion of women, including those working in the informal sector, and their families from government benefits delivered to vulnerable groups.
IDLO has reoriented its work in Jordan to assist civil society and women entrepreneurs in dealing with the impact of COVID-19 and preparing for economic recovery. IDLO has been organizing a number of online consultations and working group sessions with women entrepreneurs and legal experts on issues such as taxation, social security and labor laws in the context of the pandemic. IDLO will continue with the discussion to help local stakeholders from civil society and the business community to assess the impact of lockdown and associated mitigation measures by the government and develop policy recommendations.
IDLO continues to provide technical assistance to national partners, including the Ministry of Justice, the Judicial Council and the Judicial Institute, to review the legal and regulatory frameworks for mediation in Jordan and the Economic Chambers (Courts) using virtual platforms and over the phone. The focus will be on the digitalization methodology necessary for coping with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of emergency during consultations with stakeholders.
IDLO, together with its local civil society partners, is also developing interventions to enhance the ability of the commercial and economic legal systems to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and address its long-term impacts on small and medium enterprises and smaller businesses, especially those owned by women. In the area of judicial capacity building, IDLO and its partners, including the Judicial Institute of Jordan, have initiated a dialogue on the strengthening of e-learning in the judiciary as part of long-term recovery. Finally, IDLO is setting up a group of experts on justice and rule of law to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to justice and judicial functionality.
IDLO is currently implementing two programs in Jordan to enhance commercial mediation as an effective dispute resolution mechanism and to strengthen the capacity of national partners – the judiciary and women entrepreneurs – in commercial and economic laws.
Image credit: Judicial Institute of Jordan