The damaging effects of the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic impact upon all the ramifications of human life. The Nigerian Justice Sector is obviously not immune from the effects of the pandemic. The necessity to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus has led to, among other things, a nationwide closure of court rooms (save for certain
exceptions). Hence, the urgent need for paradigm shift to adjust the judicial process to make for recovery of lost grounds occasioned by the lockdown.
Considering the current realities and in adjusting to the times, therefore, we will work with the Judiciary at the Federal and the State levels to arrive at a workable mechanism for achieving these within the shortest time possible. We will continue with the on-going implementation of the National Policy of Justice with renewed vigour, while making necessary adjustments as may be required due to the COVID-19 disruptions. Application of technology is not strange to our Justice Sector/Judicial System.
The Judiciary adopted a Judiciary Information Technology Policy in 2012 to guide the use of ICT by the Judiciary. In this wise, the Supreme Court introduced electronic filing and this has also been adopted by some States’ High Courts. One major lesson from COVID-19 is that the Nigerian Justice Sector must seriously leverage technology in the improvement of its capacity and for facilitating fair and speedy administration of justice.
Information technology is the tool we are majorly going to use to cover the lost ground in our judicial system and measures are already on going to address this in our judicial system. These adjustments will cover, the Courts’ Administrative Processes (such as filing of Court Processes), Regulation of Access to Court and even sitting
arrangements during proceedings (to sustain the gains we must have recorded in trumping COVID-19), tracking and retrieval of information from the courts, scheduling of court proceedings with strict time-allocation.
Robust use of technological tools to conduct proceedings including virtual proceedings, (this would also enable the Justices/Judges to preside over matters in their chamber without being physically present in a formal court room, parties and their counsel will only connect through teleconference means) etc. Some of these adjustments are not simple and may require certain amendments of the Law (or Issuance of Rules of Court and Practice Directions) as may be necessary. The judges will be sitting and maintaining social distance while the lawyers’ interface with the courts through their digital computers should be considered in certain cases.
We expect the judiciary to keep supporting the Presidential Task Force on COVID -19 and consider how best to start opening up as soon as possible and to start tackling backlog of cases. We will start by seeing how much cases can be handled online or without a face-to-face interaction leveraging on the use of technology.
As such the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, with support of relevant stakeholders, will see to:
1. Empowering the institutions of the ACJA, 2015 to commence functioning immediately. For instance, Part 46 dealing with the administration of the Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee; Section 251- witness payment; sections 107 & 108 etc. The net result will galvanise the judicial sector into rapid mode to fast track trials and
release of those who are deserving.
2. Deployment of ICT facilities to fast-track taking evidence from witnesses. Digital platforms such as Skype and Zoom can be used. NTA stations across the country can be connected to courts to facilitate taking evidence as witnesses do not have to necessary be physically present in court. It is expected that NTA facilities are to provide
the rudimentary structures for video conferencing in view of their digital switchover process. Using their existing IT infrastructure, the courts may only need video screens and bandwidth at the minimum to ensure connectivity between parties to the proceedings.
3. Speedy processing of pending civil matters that have not reached advanced stages of hearing and with the consent of parties and their solicitors to opt for out of court settlement. This may even mean using multi-door mediation avenues in courts that already have one, such in the case of Lagos and the FCT and a few other states.
4. Criminal charges of minor and non-indictable offences should be summarily tried and sentenced to non-custody penalties. Even in cases where sentenced persons cannot pay their fines, the court should consider other alternative punishments other than jail term. This can include parole or probationary sentences and, if possible, community service like cleaning public places etc.,
5. Persons awaiting trial on minor criminal charges should be discharged, especially in cases where adjournments have been at the instance of the prosecution.
6. The passing of the civil equivalent of the ACJA in order to fast track the disposal of civil proceedings. Civil matters are proportionately more in number and tend to clog the speedy completion of civil trials. The proposed law (civil equivalent of the ACJA) should stipulate time line for commencing and completing civil trials. Front loading of evidence should also be adopted for civil trials in order to fast track hearings.
7. Setting aside special dates and that Courts work extra hours to decongest their case files. The 2020 court vacation could be suspended as the COVID 19 lockdown period has provided judges with the much-needed break from official duties.
8. Having courts that are fully IT-compliant in order to fast track the digital recording and production of the record of court proceedings. The courts should also be able to automate case filing and cause list management.
9. Appointment of more judges and justices, as appropriate. Additional judicial decisions of federal courts are to be created. This will, as a proactive measure, help in decongesting the already loaded court hearing schedules.
10. Payment of court fees is done electronically. All court fees should be done electronically and not in cash. The courts should only receive receipts of payments and this can be transmitted online as well.
At Courts where hearing electronically may not possible, we can also consider having only few people attend to court matters. Ensuring that court dockets have only few cases per day can reduce the number of persons in courts. So, all the pending judgments should be drafted and concluded during short period of time. This does not require lawyers to be present. Once the judgment is ready, the lawyers should be able to receive them in their email or it should be posted on the court’s website for any interested party to download it.
This is the way to go and thus provide greater transparency.
The way to go in effect, Court Proceedings should also be handled in a manner that reduces the number of persons in the courts at any given time. Although this requires the movement of suspects from prisons to the courts, all such suspects should be tested, in fact everyone entering the court premises should be tested to ensure that they are
not already positive, thus risking the lives of other people. While some of these changes may not happen in the short term, there is need to start the introduction of these new initiatives immediately through consultations with the Judiciary, NBA, and other relevant stakeholders.
Abubakar Malami, SAN, is Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Federal Republic of Nigeria
(20th of April, 2020).