President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, on Tuesday, ratified the second amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code (Act no. 12/2016), passed by the parliament on June 29.
The new amendment grants judges with the discretion to hold court through audio and video conferencing means, under special circumstances.
Special circumstances are determined by referring to factors such as
- the country being placed under a state of emergency
- the country suffering a crisis which makes travelling to court unsafe
- parties being unable to bear the costs of travelling to court, are unable to travel in inclement weather or do not have access to adequate transport-arrangements, especially in light of the Maldives’ dispersed geography
- unforeseen challenges in conducting regular trials within a respective jurisdiction
- if delays would hinder access to justice
Although judges' are allowed to determine if it is appropriate to hold trials through audio or video conferencing means, they may only proceed with such arrangements if the defendant does not object.
The amendment also stipulates that recordings of court sessions held via audio and video conferencing methods must be stored and archived for 25 years after the trials' conclusion.
In addition, a chapter on the enactment of special procedures during State of Emergencies and crises was added prior to the 30th chapter of the aforementioned Act.
Upon ratification, the amendment has now been published in the Government Gazette.
The bill was initially approved by the Parliament's Judiciary Committee after several reforms and subsequently passed by 58 votes in favour and one against by the lawmakers in attendance at the 12th sitting of the second session of 2020.
Although hearings will be held under the consent of the accused to waive their constitutional right "to be tried in person and to defend himself through legal counsel of his own choosing", as stated in Article 51, Section (f) of the Maldives' Constitution, video-based hearings will not be applicable to those with mental disorders and individuals that have confessed to their crimes.
The bill also extended the statute of limitations set for pressing charges, as well as for filing an appeal, during a state of emergency.
Several unprecedented video-based hearings were held by both appellate and lower courts during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the country, including the Supreme Court's first live virtual hearing and the first digitally-held divorce hearing held by the Family Court.