ON May 12, 2020, a bill seeking to alter the constitution to legalise virtual court proceedings passed through the first reading at the Senate, raising hopes of decongesting the courts of long-pending cases and removing much of the clogs in judicial proceedings that arise from convening physically in an era of coronavirus pandemic.
The bill titled “1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, 2020 (SB. 418)’, sought to amend the relevant sections of the constitution, especially Section 36, sub-section 12 by adding sub-section 13 to cause the term, “remote hearing” to mean proceedings or hearing of court conducted via Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp Video or any other Social Media platform or technological innovation”.
Although virtual courts have been hearing cases in Brazil, UK, China, Singapore, Bangladesh, Peru, Hungary and other countries, the need for it was intensified worldwide by COVID-19 pandemic. With 100 megabits per second Internet speed, advocates have been working from home on virtual screens, and many important cases have been heard.
Like other innovations brought about by the ‘new normal’, virtual court proceedings can revolutionise our court processes by eliminating man-hours our elderly judges, lawyers and others involved in court proceedings spend daily on traffic-congested roads, especially in cities like Lagos. Such gained man-hours and other eliminated inconveniences can be ploughed back into the system to decongest the courts of long-pending cases.
Most recently, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica B. Dongban-Mensem, at the opening day of the Court of Appeal’s Working Retreat and Annual Conference of the Justices of the Court of Appeal, revealed that there are over 4,630 appeals and 6,207 motions pending in the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal alone as at December 1, 2020.
Instructively, Justice Dongban-Mensem also praised Mrs. Folake Solanke, SAN, who at 88 attended the conference just to make a presentation ‘despite the risks to her health arising from the COVID-19 pandemic’. Instructively too, issues covered at the conference included health and information communication technology – two issues relevant to virtual court proceedings.
The problem of access to judiciary and congestion of courts by pending cases are not peculiar to Nigeria. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that four billion people worldwide are outside the ambit of the law, lawyers and courtrooms, yet there is a huge backlog of cases, with about 80 million pending in Brazil and about 30 million in India.
Partly to stem this tide, the South African and Ugandan judiciaries are using Zoom, while New Zealand is using Microsoft teams for virtual hearings.
A Court in Nova Scotia, Canada, has suggested that even tele-warrants and PDFs be made acceptable. In the United States, the US Supreme Court hears oral arguments via the telephone!
On April 16, the Hague Conference on Private International Law announced the Guide to Good Practice on the Use of Video-Link under the 1970 Evidence Convention. These ought to inspire our lawmakers to expedite actions on the proposed bill and make virtual court proceeding a permanent reality in our legal system.