By Chinyere Omeire
Global pandemic, Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), and its attendant restrictions have resulted in some new ways of doing things as governments, organisations, groups and even individuals struggle to survive.
In Nigeria’s judiciary, lockdowns following outbreak of the pandemic on Feb. 27, 2020, crippled justice administration as court activities nationwide were halted in an effort to curb the spread.
Many lawyers and litigants, thus, decried delay in accessing justice.
Thinking out the box, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, gave a directive to heads of courts at federal and state levels to adopt virtual court sittings to ameliorate the difficulty in justice dispensation.
The CJN and chief judges of states issued practice directions, allowing virtual court sittings mostly on the consent of parties involved in the suits.
The directive was, however, challenged at the Supreme Court by the attorneys-general of Lagos and Ekiti states.
The attorneys-general prayed the apex court to determine whether, having regard to Sections 36(1), (3) and (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the use of technology for remote hearings of any kind by the Lagos State High Court or any other courts in Nigeria in aid of hearing and determination of cases, was constitutional.
On July 14, 2020, the Supreme Court struck out the suits as a seven-man panel of justices led by Olabode Rhodes-Vivour held that virtual court sitting was not unconstitutional at the moment.
The Supreme Court held that the suits filed by both Lagos and Ekiti States, seeking an interpretation of the constitutionality of virtual court proceeding, was premature.
The Supreme Court said judges across the country should continue to conduct virtual court proceedings until such time that the National Assembly concludes its efforts to amend the 1999 Constitution to accommodate virtual court proceedings.
According to the apex court, it is only after the National Assembly has passed its pending bill seeking to include virtual court proceedings in the Constitution, that anyone can challenge the constitutionality or otherwise of such an enactment, and question whether it violates the powers of heads of courts across the country to regulate proceedings.
This child of necessity – virtual court system – enabled some courts to do some activities while others could not, due to lack of capacity to adapt to the procedure.
Many lawyers have hailed judicial authorities for the virtual court system, describing it as a child of necessity.
According to them, the lockdown experience exposed inadequacies in the country’s judicial system and showed the need to embrace technological solutions and interventions.
Mr Osuala Nwagbara, the Managing Partner of Maritime and Commercial Law Partners, Apapa, Lagos, believes that a technological-driven judicial system will facilitate justice delivery.
Nwagbara says that Nigerian lawyers have been yearning for an automated system of filing processes in courts.
Nwagbara adds that the lawyers also yearn for adjudication of some matters online.
He argues that the constitutionality of virtual court proceedings is influenced more by the exigencies of the moment.
He says virtual court procedure is not unconstitutional since the 1999 Constitution provides for an aggrieved persons to ventilate their rights through the courts and for accused persons to be given facilities to defend themselves.
According to the lawyer, virtual court hearing is a procedural way to ventilate such rights.
He insists that the procedure does not rob anyone of the right to be heard.
“On the contrary, not to devise safe court proceedings will amount to shutting people out of their rights to ventilate their grievances or defend themselves,” Nwagbara argues.
He is convinced that virtual court system does not make a complainant a judge in his own cause but follows the age-long tradition that an unbiased and independent umpire, a judge, sits and resolves disputes or complaints.
Mr Chibuikem Opara of the Justification Law firm, Ikeja, also argues that the Supreme Court’s judgment was influenced more by the exigencies of the moment than the Constitution.
He suggests that laws should be applied liberally while rigidity and harsh interpretations that may result in hardship should be avoided.
Opara calls for amendment of the Constitution to expressly embody the Supreme Court’s decision.
Mr Chris Ayiyi, Principal Partner, Ayiyi Chambers, Apapa, Lagos, also says the court judgement was necessitated by the situation at hand.
He argues, however, that the cost effectiveness of the virtual court sitting was not considered.
Ayiyi believes that the apex court should have considered the cost of virtual proceedings on ordinary people.
Mediation advocacy experts including the Messrs Valentino Buoro and Adeyemi Akisanya, are of the opinion that certain matters be should be referred to mediation for peaceful and amicable resolution through multi-door courthouses.
They note that COVID-19-induced lockdown was unanticipated and suddenly disrupted routines.
According to Buoro, online mediation seeks to ease the imbalances.
He advises parties in suits to embrace Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and resolve most of their cases through mediation or any other ADR process.
Akinsanya notes that ADR does not require bulk documentation like litigation.
“It is faster and consensual,” he argues.
Analysts believe that administration of justice in Nigeria requires more intervention and more infrastructure to global trends.