Dispute resolution and the administration of justice has been an integral aspect of every society. Following the emergence of the novel corona virus (COVID-19) which is transmitted through human physical contact, various countries have taken different measures to curb the spread of the virus especially within its court and other places used for dispute resolution.
In an attempt to enforce social distancing within the Nigerian Court environment, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad,issued a circular directing the suspension of Court sittings in Nigeria for an initial period of two weeks, effective from 24th March, 2020. However, a day before the lapse of the said two-week period, the CJN through a letter dated April 6th, 2020, directed all heads of Courts in Nigeria to suspend court sittings till further notice, with the exception of matters that are urgent, essential or time-bound according to extant laws. According to the CJN, the suspension of Court sittings is in line with the Presidential Order made pursuant to the COVID-19 Regulation 2020, which directs the lock-down of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) as well as Lagos and Ogun States, in a bid to prevent the spread of the novel corona virus.
Given the overreaching impact of COVID-19 and the present suspension of judicial activities within the country, it goes without saying that the present situation is going to occasion a great hardship in the dispute resolution system in Nigeria.Thus, the need to ensure that judicial activities in Nigeria continue to thrive in the face of the corona virus pandemic to foster continuous dispensation of justice and dispute resolution has become imminent.
This article attempts to examine the Nigerian judicial system and proffer innovative measures that can be introduced in the administration of justice. The objective of this article is to ascertain the possibility of ensuring continuous and effective dispute resolution and administration of justice in the light of the ongoing pandemic. We shall be drawing a leaf from how other jurisdictions have been able to address this concern and the steps Nigeria can take in ensuring continuous justice delivery despite the outbreak of the coronavirus.
ONLINE JUSTICE ADMINISTRATION
Due to the current events faced by the world, some countries have taken measures to limit the impact of the virus without limiting the effective dispensation of justice. To achieve this, these countries introduced novel and innovative solutions to their adjudication process and procedures. For the purpose of this article we shall briefly examine China and Kenya and how they have been able to achieve effective justice delivery without contravening their country’s lock-down measures.
THE CHINESE APPROACH
China is known to be one of the most technologically advanced countries. Hence, it is no surprise that they introduced a ‘Smart Courts’ system. The concept of ‘Smart Courts’ was first proposed by its apex court, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), in 2015. The SPC has since directed courts at all levels to create Smart Courts.
Prior to the pandemic, Chinese courts have seen rapid developments in online dispute resolution platforms, specialized internet courts, and the wide use of Artificial Intelligence tools across case management and adjudication processes in civil and criminal proceedings. The internet courts allow for the entire litigation process to be conducted online, including filing and service of court processes, pre-trial mediation, collection and presentation of evidence, preservation of assets,trial, judgment, enforcement, appeal,among other processes.
The Chinese internet courts make provisions for filing of cases directly. They also encourage direct communication with the judge via text and audio messages. Uploading of evidence is facilitated by a mobile court application created for that purpose by the Chinese government. The parties and the judge can log into the app at the same time, undertake the pre-trial mediation, complete the e-signing of the mediation settlement, and deliver the judgment on the mobile court application.
THE KENYAN APPROACH
In Africa, Kenya seems to be a forerunner in the aspect of the adoption of technology in the administration of justice. In response to the disruption presented by the COVID-19, Kenya’s Judiciary sent out notices informing lawyers that henceforth it would be delivering pending judgment’s through electronic means which include video chat and emails.To achieve this the Judiciary made use of already existing video streaming and mailing platforms such as Skype and Gmail respectively to continue to administer its ruling.
Acting on this directive it was recorded that on March 30, the presiding Judge of the Mombasa High Court delivered 23 judgments using the popular video streaming platform, Skype. The country’s Court of Appeal did same for over 20 judgments on Friday April 3rd 2020.
The Kenyan Judiciary indicated its intention to also deliver pending judgments via email. Lawyers have been advised to send information to designated emails provided by the Judiciary itself, which includes case numbers, email addresses, telephone numbers, as well as additional case details of cases awaiting ruling or judgement, the date of the judgement TBD, and finally the name of the respective appointed judge.
THE ROLE OF VIRTUAL COURTS IN THE NIGERIAN JUDICIAL SYSTEM
Unfortunately, Nigeria has not been as proactive as its counterparts mentioned in the preceding section. In Nigeria, the judicial system of government is regulated by the National Judicial Council under the leadership of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. The Nigerian Judicial system operates a system with huge reliance on physical activities within the Court premises. Pre-trial activities such as case filing and pre-trial conferences are required to be effected within the Court premises. More so, trials are conducted in the Court as well as other post trial activities.
Prior to the post COVID-19 pandemic, Nigerian Courts hosted a beehive of activities with lots of physical interactions with persons exiting and entering the Court premises including judges, Court officials and lawyers.
The analogue nature of court operations in Nigeria, have also increased the heavy reliance of physical human interaction in the conduct of judicial activities within the Nigerian Court system.
Although the Lagos State Judiciary has made effort to digitize its activities by the introduction of electronic communications in certain areas of its operations such as the electronic communication of probate applications via the Lagos State Probate electronic portal, there is a lot that still need to be done.
In view of recent suspension of Court activities in Nigeria it has become expedient for the Nigerian Judiciary to explore different electronic communication channels to ensure continuous dispensation of justice even in these times.
Trials in the regular court system are public and generally respect constitutionally protected individual rights, including a presumption of innocence, the right to be present, to present evidence and to be represented by legal counsel.An important goal of Nigeria’s judicial reform over the past decade has been to increase the professionalism, transparency and accountability of courts and individual judges. The implementation of new information and communication technologies (ICT) by the Lagos state judiciary has been a key component targeted at improving efficiency, speedy dispensation of justice and the way the judiciary is supervised.
Given the current realities, it is still uncertain when the pandemic will come to an end. Hence, postponing the administration of justice and the restriction of court sittings to urgent matters may not be the most practical approach to dispensing justice.
As seen above, it requires a proactive Judiciary to ensure the continuance of the administration of justice. The presence of the COVID-19 tests how well the Judiciary is able to think on its feet in a time like this where justice can be hampered. Nigeria may not be technologically endowed as China, but just like Kenya it can make use of already existing platforms to administer justice.
In view of the foregoing, we recommend that some of the ICT compliance measures adopted by China and Kenya be incorporated into our extant judicial process such as provisions for hearings via video calls and submission and filing of pleadings online among others.The online arbitration should also be introduced to enable parties who desire expeditious resolutions of commercial issues in the wake of the breach of contractual obligations obtain reliefs from arbitrarily online tribunals.
Digital transformation, leveraging many diverse applications and digital tools made available by the government, empowers courts to re-engineer and optimize legacy processes. As time goes on and as Nigeria improves technologically, the courts should work towards adopting the online court fully with an objective of ensuring quicker resolution of the plethora of cases which come before it.
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