COVID-19 and the virtual courts’ proceedings’ bill

 

 

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mid the on-going effort to curb the ravaging coronavirus in Nigeria, the National Assembly is considering an alteration bill to give legal teeth to virtual courts’ proceedings in the country.

The bill, entitled: “1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, 2020 (SB. 418), being sponsored by Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, has scaled first reading at the Senate.

 

 

Its sole aim, if it becomes law, is to ensure the much needed corresponding amendment of relevant provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended, in giving legal teeth to virtual courts’ proceedings.

Provisions of the bill include Section 36 sub-section (3), which states that “this section is hereby amended by the addition of the following:

 

 

“Provided that nothing in this subsection shall invalidate proceedings of a court or the proceedings of a tribunal relating to matters mentioned in sub-section (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) where same is held by remote hearing or any virtual means now in existence or yet to be developed.

“Section 36 sub-section (4) is hereby amended by addition of sub-paragraph (c) as follows: (c) nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall invalidate proceedings of a court or the proceedings of a tribunal relating to matters mentioned in sub-section (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) where same is held by remote hearing or any virtual means now in existence or yet to be developed.

 

 

“Section 36 sub-section (12) is hereby amended by addition of the following sub-section (13): In this section, “remote hearing” means proceedings or hearing of court conducted via zoom, Skype, WhatsApp video or any other social media platform or technological innovation.”

 

 

This is indeed a cheery news to major stakeholders in the nation’s justice administration, especially the courts, which had been under lock and key following the global lockdown over the novel coronavirus outbreak.

In the last two months, courts in Nigeria, like other arms of government and other vital sectors, particularly the economy, had been at a standstill. The consequence of COVID-19 on the nation’s justice system is not only dire, but has completely nailed it to the walls.

 

 

Courtrooms had been under lock and key as lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the virus has significantly shut down justice delivery system in the country.

The COVID-19 crisis has, no doubt, left the judiciary, like other sectors, in disarray.

 

 

Its impact on the justice sector since 24th March, 2020, when the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammed, in a circular No. NJC/CIR/HOC/11/656, dated 23rd March, 2020 directed all heads of courts to suspend court’s sittings for an initial period of two weeks, has been huge and unimaginably unprecedented.

 

 

While hope was in the horizon for the courts to return to normalcy, the Federal Government again declared a total lockdown in some states of the federation following the spread of the virus.

This, again, forced the CJN to shut the temple of justice nationwide.

 

 

For litigants, inmates and lawyers, COVID-19 has indeed compounded the justice dimension; a fortuitous development created out of inexorable necessity.

 

 

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has forced the judiciary echelon to think progressively outside of the box and beyond the confines of their comfort lines. The outbreak of the virus has, indeed, created an awakening force in the use of emerging innovations such as the use of virtual technology in the delivery of judicial functions. This is, however, being facilitated at the National Assembly by Senator Bamidele.

Bamidele, who is representing Ekiti Central, is seeking legal teeth for the virtual technology to activate the temple of justice to discharge its duty amid the fight against coronavirus.

 

 

Thus, we hopefully believe Bamidele’s virtual bill will help the judiciary, the legal profession and the entire superstructure of the administration of justice in the country to re-imagine how judiciary would deliver justice services in a much more efficient, accessible and prudent way. This bill, if passed into law, should also avail stakeholders in the judiciary the use of freely available information technology tools to provide solutions to the many needs of court users.

 

 

While we, like other major stakeholders in the nation’s justice administration, are not averse to the helpless situation the judiciary and other sectors have found themselves in this COVID-19 era, we believe the total closure of courts, which provides essential services, will no doubt impose injustice on the people as scores of Nigerians whose cases will lapse, especially the awaiting trial detainees and many others will be in detention longer than they could ordinarily have been.

 

 

This is why we must also commend Chief Justice Muhammed, who on 15th May, 2020, directed heads of courts across the country to ensure speedy trial of criminal cases with a view to decongesting the Correctional Centres in the country.

 

 

We once again salute Senator Bamidele and Chief Justice Mohammed for burning the midnight oil to ensure that the justice system and the legal practice do not grind to a complete halt and courts are not locked down indefinitely amid COVID-19.

 

 

Needless to say, the National Assembly must expedite action on the passage of virtual courts’ proceedings bill, which will ensure that after now, the judiciary will continue to dispense its functions during this or any other crisis that could forbid physical gathering. Also, the heads of courts, as directed by the chief justice, should ensure speedy trial and decongest correctional centres (prisons) in their jurisdictions.

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