Virtual court sittings: a new dawn, panacea for speedy justice delivery – Lawyers, litigants

As the judiciary system in Nigeria breaks into a new dawn in its practice through the introduction of virtual court sittings. Some Legal practitioners say that the laudable initiative will ensure quick dispensation of justice.
Speaking on the development, Mr Abdulwahab Daudu, SAN, said that the virtual court sitting was introduced as part of efforts to ensure justice after long months of lockdown and the need for social distancing as a result of the Covid-19.
“If not for the introduction of the virtual court sitting, a lot of people will still be in detention awaiting judgment or a date for hearing of their case.
” I have a client who has benefitted from this as he got judgment via the virtual sitting by Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu if not we will probably still be on his case particularly as she has been transferred out of Abuja.
“My client is now a free man all thanks to the judgment delivered via the virtual court sitting so I cannot criticise it at all,” he said.
Also Mr Marshall Yakubu also added that the virtual court sitting was long overdue adding that prison officials would no longer use the excuse of logistics not to bring inmates to court.
“Sometimes it is frustrating when we the counsel come to court and then the custodians do not bring your client and they use “logistics” as an excuse.
“With the virtual sitting, they can be in the custodial centre and have their cases heard and judgment delivered.”
For Mrs Annette Bahago, the virtual court sitting is a bit premature considering that the National Assembly has yet to amend the constitution to capture it.
“It is a good idea, but my worry is that since there is no constitutional provision for it yet, I hope we won’t have a situation where judgments delivered by virtual court sittings would be declared a nullity if eventually the amendment is not carried.
“I am also concerned about those in the correctional centres, will the centres provide good network for the proceedings to be seamless?
“These are some of the issues that need to be addressed before I will be comfortable supporting it 100 per cent,” she said.
In a seperate development, the Supreme Court had ruled that there was nothing at the moment that made virtual proceedings and sitting by courts in the country null, void and unconstitutional.
The apex court gave the ruling while delivering judgment in a suit filed by Lagos and Ekiti States.
A seven-man panel of the apex court led by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour held that it was premature for Lagos and Ekiti States to file suits to seekung interpretation of the constitution to determine whether virtual court proceedings and sitting were constitutional or not.
In the suit, the Lagos and Ekiti state governments prayed the Supreme Court to determine whether having regard to Section 36(1), (3) and (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the use of technology by remote hearings of any kind, whether by Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype or any other audiovisual or video-conference platform by the Lagos State High Court or any other courts in Nigeria in aid of hearing and determination of cases was constitutional.
The court directed judges across the country to continue conducting virtual proceedings, where it was comfortable for them, until the National Assembly concluded its ongoing efforts to amend the constitution to accommodate virtual hearing.
The apex court held that it was premature to challenge the constitutionality or otherwise of virtual court proceedings because the National Assembly was still in the process of amending the constitution or enact a law to that effect.
Justice Rhodes-Vivour advised the two states whose cases were argued by their attorneys-general to patiently await the bill on the amendment to the constitution still pending at the National Assembly on the issue.
He said it was after the National Assembly had passed the bill seeking to include virtual sitting in the constitution that anybody could challenge the constitutionality or otherwise of such an enactment.
He said: “Just let us wait for the National Assembly whether what they will come up with goes against the practice direction issued by chief judges of the states and the National Judicial Council (NJC) on virtual sitting.
“As at now, virtual sitting is not unconstitutional.”
Justice Amina Augie, a member of the panel, said: “It is a fundamental law; we do not act on speculation. What you are doing now is speculative.”
Another member of the panel, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola said: “Why don’t you wait for the National Assembly to come up with what they are doing, then you can come and challenge it if you are not comfortable?
“You have a choice either to ask that your matter be adjourned sine die until after the National Assembly passes its law or you withdraw your case.”
Justice Ejembi Eko had also agreed with his colleagues that the suits were premature and speculative.
He said by virtue of the provision of Section 168(1) of the Evidence Act, the practice directions by courts’ heads on virtual proceedings enjoy the presumption of regularity until they were set aside.
“We cannot say, at this stage, whether or not virtual sitting is constitutional,” Justice Eko said.
For Ms Josephine Ijekhuemen, a Lagos-based legal practitioner, virtual proceedings will not only give avenues for matters to be heard expeditiously but would ensure cost and time effectiveness for lawyers, litigants and the court as well.
“The 2020 novel coronavirus came with various problems which precipitated the world to embark on total lockdown so as to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Although there was lockdown, the judiciary has to function just as the judicial systems worldwide and this necessitated the National Judicial Council (NJC) directive for remote hearings of pending matters.
“These hearings were in some cases convenient and in others tedious.
“It is nevertheless a good initiative and I believe the time has come for Nigeria’s judicial system to evolve by enabling remote hearings in our courts.
“The advantage of holding virtual or remote hearings is that litigants who are far from the jurisdiction of these hearings can utilize zoom, Skype or any other video conferencing platforms approved by the court,” she said.
Also speaking, Mr Dayo Oluwole said although the constitutional provisions of Section 36 requires matters to be heard in public, under the same section, the law also provided that justice should be dispersed within a reasonable time.
“Hence the NJC sent out this Practise Direction for matters to be heard virtually for speedy dispensation of Justice,” he said.
According to Oluwole, it can also be argued that the internet is a public place.
He called on the need to amend the rules of the court to accommodate virtual hearings procedure and practice.
For an Abuja-based lawyer, Noah Ajare, virtual proceeding is the norm these days.
“The Supreme Court in Nigeria and the U.S. and the global international community have come to accept virtual hearing as the acceptable legal practice,” he said.
According to him, the world was hurriedly pushed into virtual trials because of COVID-19.
“We have so many practice directions and judgments that support virtual hearing,” he said.
Ajare said it was disheartening that the judiciary has relaxed in the use of virtual hearing after the Federal Government completely lifted the lockdown, following the successful containment of coronavirus pandemic.
“I think we should adopt virtual proceedings more, particularly in matters that are not so contentious.
“We need to revisit this system as a way of decongesting the court dockets; we need to use more of virtual hearing to reduce the court workload,” he said.
Ajare said this should not be limited to the trial courts but the appellate courts as well.
‘It is the way to go; it is the future of litigation and practice world over and Nigeria should not be left behind.
“It should be accepted, it should be welcomed and we should improve on it,” he added.
Mr Yahaya Abubakar, a litigant at the Wuse Magistrate Court, threw his weight behind virtual hearing.
Abubakar said conducting court hearings over the internet would relieve plaintiffs, defendants as well as counsel in a suit, the stress of traveling from one place to the other.
He said this would, therefore, ensure time and cost effectiveness in the dispensation of justice.
Abubakar, who advised that annual trainings of judges and lawyers on information communications technology (ICT) should be prioritised to bring them up to date on use of modern technology.
He said that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) should be ready to ensure that Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) or internet service providers delivered effective services.
Consequently, the Federal Government had said all was set to launch the pilot nationwide deployment and use of Virtual Court Proceedings in Nigeria’s Correctional Centres.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, said that the pilot project facilities would commence with the Kuje Correctional Centre.
As a matter of fact, several judgments have been delivered via virtual court sittings and beneficiaries of such judgments who were incarcerated have been set free just as others have been discharged and acquited.
Finally, lawyers said that whether virtual or physical, a judgment delivered by a court of competent jurisdiction is binding on all parties.

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