The Impact of COVID-19 on Access to Justice

By Jayne He


In addition to the severe implications for public health and healthcare services, the COVID-19 pandemic is having and will continue to have a significant social and economic impact. The pandemic also imposes challenges on the access to justice and may accelerate digitalisation in the administration of justice.

On 22 May 2020, Herbert Smith Freehills China International Business and Economic Law (CIBEL) Centre member Associate Professor Kun Fan gave a public lecture on “the Impact of COVID-19 on Access to Justice” for the China Summer Weekly Live organised by the International Association of University Summer Sessions (IAUSS)

In the lecture, Associate Professor Fan argued that the challenges on the access to justice are one of the biggest problems faced by the legal profession. In searching for ways to bridge the gap between people’s understanding of their rights and enforcing their rights, she advocated for the need to look beyond dispute resolution and take dispute containment, avoidance and legal health promotion into consideration, making reference to Richard Susskind’s theory of “four levels of access to justice”.

Associate Professor Fan believes that the pandemic will lead to an accelerated digitalisation in the administration of justice, which means there might be more e-mediation, e-arbitration, and online courts in the future. She argued that the current crisis may lead to more demand for mediation, conciliation and other amicable methods of dispute resolution.

According to Associate Professor Fan’s observation, the COVID-19 pandemic had exerted remarkably pressure on the arbitration community to innovate technology-integrated arbitral procedures and had resulted in more virtual evidentiary hearings. In the lecture, she also discussed at length a number of issues that could arise when hearings were conducted fully online and referred to recommended protocols or guidance from arbitration institutions.

Finally, she illustrated the prospect of internet courts and robot justice in China, who has been at the frontlines of adopting technology in court services. She mentioned that internet courts have been rolled out in some Chinese cities like Hangzhou, Beijing and Guangzhou where non-human judges powered by artificial intelligence (AI) have been used in these “smart courts”. Associate Professor Fan predicted that the use of AI in assisting the administration of justice would become more common going forward.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.” Associate Professor Fan believes that the incorporation of technology in the administration of justice is an inevitable trend, and the current pandemic may have significantly pushed the digitalisation process much forward.

Associate Professor Fan will host a virtual panel session on “COVID-19 and digitalisation of dispute resolution” as a part of the 2020 CIBEL Global Network Conference. The panel session is open for abstract submission now.

More of Associate Professor Fan may be found at SSRN, Twitter @fankunlegal and LinkedIn