Renewing the judicial service in times of pandemic: the experience of an Argentine province
In the words of Joseph Pulitzer - and a great deal of like-minded thinkers -, adverse situations are sometimes the source of great opportunities. Indeed, these times have brought about such unforeseen realities as never before in our contemporary history. Thus, we find ourselves facing a sanitary catastrophe - even in the judicial field - for which no one was prepared, and from which thanks to the hard work, creativity, and resilience of all of us who are part of this Judicial Branch, we are reemerging, after a positive transformation in the way in which justice is served in our province. A renewed justice, not in a declamatory but in a literal sense, mostly due to the technological and procedural reforms promoted and implemented during this period.
At the Supreme Court of Justice of Tucumán, a northern province of Argentina, we were able to adopt various measures in order to preserve both the health of the workers and of the citizens who come to the judicial units and, at the same time, guarantee the essential and timely provision of justice.
In the early months of last year, we undertook a process of change with the implementation of procedural reforms. The great challenge going forward was to make a humanizing appropriation of the modernization, oralization and digitalization of the current legal proceedings, adopting the best that new technologies could offer and achieving valuable results in qualitative terms. Suddenly, however, we were further challenged by a situation that required us to accelerate and deepen the change in the logic of our work.
In this exceptional context, the work of our Judicial Branch did not stop. A year and a half after the outbreak of the pandemic, satisfied with the success of our efforts and at the same time wary of the times to come, Agreement 1049/21 of the Supreme Court summoned the personnel of the Judicial Power (with the appropriate exceptions) to do in-person work as of January 9th, 2021 during the regular working hours, and to provide in-person attention to the professionals and parties that so require.
At this point, the following can be noted as a summary that briefly illustrates part of the work performed between 2020 and August 2021.
Intensive work was done to implement both the new Criminal Procedure Code and the digital records, two decisive factors in the paradigm shift in the provision of justice, with an immediate and tangible impact on the community and law professionals.
As to the former, the new Criminal Procedure Code (Law No. 8,933) is part of a model in which orality prevails over writing; there is a separation between the function of judging and that of prosecuting and indicting in which decisions are made in hearings. It represents a new conception in the administration of justice based upon the principles of reasonable time, disclosure, transparency, accessibility, equality and efficiency with the aid of new technologies to provide an effective response to penal conflicts. Shorter and more transparent processes, as demanded by society, are two of the major advances of this new procedural system.
Regarding the digital records, the challenge for the Judicial Power was to continue working remotely and serving justice during the mandatory social isolation.
Since 2010, this Court has embarked on an irreversible digitization process and ordered the creation of its own record management software (SAE). Agreement No. 236/20 approved the “Regulation of Digital Records”, which would mark a turning point towards the effective elimination of paper in the Judicial Power. The SAE is now a consolidated reality, part of the daily dynamics of those who work inside and outside this Judicial Branch, which not only put an end to paper records, but also made everything related to access, processing and resolution of judicial matters much faster and simpler.
Thus, considering the period from April 27th (when digital records were launched) to August this year, the SAE reported 70,678 records registered, 1,093,159 records processed and 4,608,375 proceedings.
We are immersed in a collective project of progress, modernization and change conceived as instrumental to the service of justice. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the draft of a new Civil and Commercial Procedural Code of Tucumán, which resulted in 2016 from the Inter-Powers Commission for the study of this reform, has a favorable opinion from the commission of the provincial Legislature. It provides for modern civil proceedings, in which judges are active participants in a process of knowledge through hearings defined by orality, disclosure, immediacy and concentration of procedural actions. It combines information and communication technology with digital records.
Regarding the jurisdictional function, between 2020 and August 2021, 117,976 sentences were passed in the civil and mixed criminal courts and 16,211 hearings were held in the new adversarial criminal justice system.
Additionally, for some time we have claimed that the gender perspective, which ought to be transversal to the service of justice, is an essential guiding principle for jurisdictional functions. Within this context and under the current particular circumstances, we have stepped up our efforts to strengthen rather than curtail access to justice for women in vulnerable conditions.
The workload of the Domestic Violence Office increased dramatically. It extended its service to non-working days and hours and introduced a system of in-person and remote on-call services to ensure effective assistance 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, and communication and information channels were made available through several technological mechanisms. Moreover, a more comprehensive intervention criterion than "domestic violence" was adopted, addressing gender-based violence in other fields as well.
In turn, the Office for Women organized different training workshops on gender, violence, and sexual diversity with a view to raising awareness about the importance of the gender perspective among all the staff of the Judicial Branch. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the workshop on compliance with the Micaela Law No. 27.499. Likewise, the Office for Women oversees the Registry of Femicides (Agreement Nº 780/15), the Registry of Procedural Measures (Agreement Nº 1253/16) and the Registry of Perpetrators of Violence against Women (Provincial Law Nº 8982 and Agreement Nº 1138/18).
The Office of Human Rights kept working on the project "Registry of deaths in State custody" and submitted new projects on "Registry of data on vulnerable populations involved in judicial proceedings" and "Registry of persons deprived of their liberty". Furthermore, efforts were devoted to the "Differentiated democratic admission system for transvestites, transsexuals and transgender people to the Judicial Branch" and to the Intercultural Court of Peace project. Other recent projects addressed include "Free Adoption Processes", "Community Mediation and Peace Court", "Guiding Protocol for the judicial notification and communication to children and adolescents", "Principle of Specialty in processes involving children and/or adolescents (NNyA) in conflict with Criminal Law", and " Comprehensible Justice".
The Office for Assistance to Victims of Crime intervened in 1,794 cases of assistance to victims and their families in the criminal jurisdiction and 3,805 in the non-criminal jurisdiction, representing a total of 5,599 interventions.
The entire work of the Judiciary must be accessible to the community, which is why this Court has been taking specific measures to give visibility to what we are doing. In this regard, all Court decisions and resolutions of the Presidency, as well as the budget execution, can be found on the website of the Judiciary, and the acts of this branch of government are also widely disseminated through the Office of Public Communication.
On a final consideration, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, if people are revealed when they measure themselves against an obstacle, I can conclude that despite the turbulent times in which I have presided over the Highest Court of this Judiciary, not only did we live up to such adverse circumstances, but we also were able to transform them into an opportunity to rebuild an increasingly efficient and effective justice service, not just for a fleeting period, as the pandemic will be, but for posterity.
Claudia Sbdar is President of the Supreme Court of Justice of Tucumán and a Member of that court. She is a former Common Civil and Commercial Judge and former rapporteur of the Supreme Court of Justice. President of the Federal Forum of Magistrates' Councils and Trial Juries. She holds a PhD in Law from the Complutense University of Madrid and a post-doctorate diploma in Law from the School of Legal Studies of the Alma Mater Studiorum-University of Bologna.
Summary of the report published in justucuman.gov.ar and partially reproduced in the article “The pandemic brought an opportunity to improve” in the newspaper La Gaceta of September 18th, 2021.