Health and Child Care Minister Constantino Chiwenga on Friday 8 January 2021 buckled to a protest by lawyers and immediately designated legal practitioners as essential service providers, who are exempt from national lockdown restrictions imposed by government last week to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Chiwenga on Friday 8 January 2021 issued Statutory Instrument 13 of 2021, which was published in a supplement to the Government Gazette wherein he amended the Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) (No. 2) Order, 2020 to include lawyers among service providers and professionals considered essential.
The Health and Child Care Minister said legal practitioners should be allowed to attend at any court and travel to and from any other place for purposes of fulfilling their professional duties.
The designation of lawyers as essential service came after human rights lawyer Obey Shava and Young Lawyers Association of Zimbabwe (YLAZ) represented by Tonderai Bhatasara of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights on Wednesday 6 January 2021 filed an urgent chamber application at the High Court seeking an order to compel government to urgently place them on the list of essential service personnel to allow them to offer legal assistance to those in need during the subsistence of the national lockdown period.
Chiwenga had on Saturday 2 January 2021 announced the imposition of a national lockdown which took effect from Tuesday 5 January 2021 and will last for 30 days and authorised some selected essential services and providers to remain open and operational and ordered all non-essential enterprises and service providers to shut down and stay at home.
Through issuance of Statutory Instrument (SI) 10 of 2021, Chiwenga had omitted lawyers from a list of essential service workers considered essential service providers.
This compelled Shava and YLAZ to protest against Chiwenga’s decision in their petition filed at High Court, where they argued that the Health and Child Care Minister’s oversight had serious ramifications for access to justice by people in need of such a service.
In their urgent chamber application, Shava and YLAZ narrated their ordeals at the hands of some law enforcement officers, who were manning roadblocks and check points and who turned back lawyers who were on their way to work on Tuesday 5 January 2021 after they allegedly failed to produce “authority to travel letters.”
Shava and YLAZ, who listed Chiwenga, Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe and Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi as respondents in their application, protested that government’s conduct in not recognising lawyers as part of professionals considered essential service providers or workers is a violation of lawyers’ rights as well as litigants and arrested persons provided in section 50, 64, 66, 69 and 70 of the Constitution.
Lawyers, Shava and YLAZ contented, are essential in completing the chain of the justice delivery system and the rights of accused persons to access lawyers of their choice as provided in the Constitution would be undermined by government’s decision to treat legal practitioners as non-essential service providers.
Apart from demanding that lawyers be treated as people carrying out essential services, Shava and YLAZ also want Chiwenga’s conduct or omission by not including legal services as essential services in SI 10/2021 and 11/2021 to be declared unconstitutional.
The matter is yet to be set down for hearing at High Court.