The fact that the Covid-19 pandemic is killing human beings and disrupting human ways of life, business as well as the way human beings do things, is no longer news to anyone. Governments at all levels and all over the world have been publishing guidelines and encouraging people to observe them, with a view to stopping the spread and harm of the Covid-19 virus. Despite Governments’ efforts, a review of the
updates on the website of the Nigerian Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC) revealed that there was a steady rise in confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Nigeria, from mid-December 2020. Thankfully, information on the verified official twitter account of the NCDC as of 3pm on 10 March 2021 suggested that the number of confirmed cases have reduced..
In keeping with Governments’ protocols, some offices had been closed
to in-person business or had allowed only limited access to their offices, so as not to expose their staff and the public to contracting the Covid19 virus. Whilst pursuant to the directives of the National Judicial Council of May 2020, many Courts have reduced the number of cases being heard per day to a maximum of ten, the High Court of Lagos State had in addition directed its Judges to sit only twice in a week. At the Federal High Court, physical documents filed along with e-documents are by the Covid-19 Practice Direction (2020) required to be kept in isolation (‘quarantined’) for a period of 5 days. Meanwhile, the protection of judicial officers and staff can partly be achieved by using modern technology to disinfect or decontaminate the physical documents before their use. This is done using a special Microwave that dries and disinfects paper documents in a short time. All these measures are
geared towards minimizing possible exposure of judiciary staff to the Covid-19 virus.
The measures taken by the Courts to halt the spread of Covid-19 have now compounded the already snail speed-like justice system in Nigeria. For example, before the Covid-19 pandemic, it would take an average of two and a half years to start and conclude cases at the trial Courts in Nigeria. With the above measures currently being observed by the Courts, it is not certain if a case can be heard more than twice in one calendar year. Court users, especially lawyers and litigants are at the receiving end. Litigants are discouraged from filing cases, as a result of which lawyers are denied income and the experience that they ought to have acquired through such cases. The Nigerian economy which is currently struggling is also being affected by the delayed justice. Justice delayed is justice denied.
As a result of the above, litigants and especially lawyers were in high spirits when sometime in May 2020, the Federal High Court and the High Court of Lagos State issued Covid-19 Practice Directions (PDs), adopting virtual/remote hearing for cases. After issuing the PDs, both Courts, especially the latter and civil groups, embarked on training of lawyers through webinars on the process and procedure of virtual/remote hearings, which gave the impression that virtual/remote hearings had come to stay and that the inordinate delays being experienced in both Courts would, at least, be minimized.
Even though I did not have the opportunity of conducting a virtual/remote hearing whilst it lasted, I must admit that a handful of cases were indeed conducted remotely. But that was it. After their resumption from the 2020 Annual Vacation, Courts went back to their traditional in-person hearing, abandoning remote hearing completely. The result is that, with the measures (mentioned above) being taken to combat the spread of Covid-19, the wheel of justice is now crawling slower than at snail-speed, and it appears that it may come to a sudden fatal stop at any time, if it continues as it is now in view of the 2nd wave, and the anticipated 3rd wave of infection by Covid-19 virus that has been replicating itself in new strains of the virus and seemingly defying vaccines that had been quickly introduced. We have also seen how some eminent lawyers and judicial officers had died from the virus.
If nothing is done quickly, one of the likely immediate attendant consequences is that litigants may choose not to settle their disputes in Court anymore, but elect to take the law into their own hands. This will take Nigeria back to the Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, where life was brutish, nasty and short; jungle justice will be the order of the day.
It is on the above premise that I call for the introduction or restoration of virtual/remote hearings throughout the hierarchy of our Courts: from the trial Courts to the Supreme Court. Virtual/remote hearings are more convenient, cheaper and faster. Going by the spate of insecurity in the country, virtual hearing is also safer, as litigants and lawyers can participate in hearings of cases outside their jurisdiction from the comfort of their homes and offices, without the need for them to travel.
There is a very urgent need for the judiciary to rise up to the occasion, quickly invest in virtual hearing infrastructure and entrench virtual/remote hearings in the Courts, so as to save the judiciary and the justice system from total collapse. Remote hearings are now a common place globally, especially in arbitration. Even official meetings are being held via video-conference. I am not unmindful of the infrastructural deficit that currently confronts our Courts. I am of the view that we can definitely start with what we have now, whilst we continue to invest massively in the needed infrastructure. After all, Rome, they say, was not built in a day. Our judiciary must leverage on the huge advantages that technology offers. It is the way to go in this 21st century. By the time, the virus is finally conquered, it will be out of fashion to use in-person hearing of cases. We either join the virtual hearing global bandwagon or be left behind. Technology drives the 4th Industrial Revolution.
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