Recently, in one of our weekly chambers conference, a colleague reported the outcome of one of the proceedings in which our client, a private company, is suing the Lagos State Government over a botched public-private partnership (PPP) housing project. The mater has dragged for more than five years since 2013 out of which the past three years have been, on and off, used to report settlement. The presiding judge, in the course of the proceedings, expressed some dissatisfaction about the protracted conduct of the case: how and why negotiating a settlement could have spanned three years and yet to be brought to a close. The learned judge in adjourning the matter then ordered counsel to apply and obtain a certified true copy of the proceedings and to forward same to the Honourable Attorney – General and Commissioner for Justice in order to have a feel of the court’s displeasure and to ensure that the government makes good its commitments to resolving the case amicably.
From the report of the proceedings by the counsel who appeared in the matter, the entire proceedings lasted just about fifteen minutes and the transcript from the judge’s note should not take more than a page in the judge’s long hand. However, an application to court to obtain the certified true copy of the record of the proceedings as ordered by the judge is now taking almost forever to be obtained.
The foregoing is a scenario many litigation lawyers in this jurisdiction are quite familiar with. Most times, even when not prompted by the court, there would be a need to apply for record of proceedings, for instance to assess an interlocutory order for a possible appeal which is time bound. To obtain the record of proceedings could take weeks if not months. A recent experience was the one this writer encountered when an application for such certified true copy of record of proceedings made in October 2018 was only finally procured in March 2019: more than five months after. Apparently, what informed the request for the record was almost getting defeated.
We cannot achieve an enduring administration of justice when court records are not easily and readily available. In many of our superior courts today, the High Court of Lagos State being one, proceedings in some of the courts are captured electronically. Apart from this, we have court reporters using special machines connected to their workstation or computers. However, it is a known fact that most times, they are only deployed when a case is going on for trial or oral evidential hearing. This should not be the case. The default position should be verbatim reportage of proceedings.
According to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, a court reporter or court stenographer also called stenotype operator, or shorthand reporter is a person whose occupation is to transcribe spoken or recorded speech into written form, using shorthand, machine shorthand or voice writing equipment to produce official transcripts of court hearings, depositions and other official proceedings. The crucial importance of this task in the administration of justice cannot be overstated. Everything said in court that is not off the record are to be captured. It fosters transparency. It also quickens the pace of proceedings as the presiding judge is relieved of the stress of writing for hours in long hand. Any of the parties, or any member of the public for that matter, can apply and easily obtain the copy of the records.
In the given scenario, had there been a verbatim or shorthand stenographer in court on the day in question, procuring the record of the court’s proceedings would have been easier. The delay in getting court’s record is inimical to the administration of justice. This is even more compounded when the standard practice in our jurisdiction is for the approval of the judge to be first sought and obtained before such record – public proceedings to which the whole world ordinarily should have a ready access – is made available.
While it is admitted that erratic power supply and inadequate court’s infrastructure are responsible for our peculiar circumstances, we can always make improvements and the net effects will be legion. As an illustration from the United States, the recent case of Edwin Hardeman v Monsanto Company (No. C 16-00525 VC) in the United States District Court of the Northern District of California about liability for the carcinogenic weed killer “Round Up” was concluded on the 27th March, 2019 with a jury verdict of a punitive damages in the sum of $80 million slammed on Monsanto. Interestingly, the entire court records are available for public consumption within the shortest timeframe. How? Competent court reporters! See the link https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4182568/hardeman-v-monsanto-company/?page=2. And this is made possible through the system called PACER which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. PACER housed at www.pacer.gov presently holds more than 500 million documents. PACER depends on court reporters to be able to deliver to the public at a fee of just $0.10 per page. Even though PACER has come under criticisms of late, it would be a welcome development to have something close to that here. Thus, due to the public interests in the Monsanto’s Round Up case, many consumer rights advocacy groups set up blogs for regular updates with links to the transcripts of the records of proceedings sourced from PACER and other similar electronic records database. See for example https://usrtk.org/monsanto-papers/federal-court/
So, given the crucial importance of transparency to the administration of justice, we urge the authorities in this jurisdiction to employ and train more court reporters; and invest in critical infrastructures for electronic recording of proceedings. This will ease access to and the maintenance or preservation of courts records, which will in turn aid the delivery of justice to the public. Even if court reporters are laymen, their crucial role in the court system is a missing link that, if plugged and well-managed, will aid in the administration of justice.
Ajadi is a senior associate at Wale Taiwo & Co. Magodo GRA Phase II, Lagos